Thursday, May 17, 2007

Norman Mailer: The Long Goodbye

Our Town downtown
January 29, 2007

I’d said my goodbye to Norman Mailer a few years ago when he was reading at the Barnes and Noble on Union Square. I’d lingered over his departure from the stage and watched him as he shuffled past the escalator, through the fiction section, with the help of two canes. I thought that would be the last time we’d see him.

But it wasn’t. Thursday night he was back on the fourth floor of the store reading from his big new novel about Hitler’s childhood. He looked a little stronger than the last time. He looked a little different too. You likely saw the Times photo in the book review a week ago. His hair straighter than you remember it. He looked like Irwin Corey meets Pat Riley. His voice was stronger than you’d think for someone turning 84 any minute. It’s a great voice, unmistakable for 40 years.

There were already people standing behind the rows of seats when I got there at 6:15 for the 7:00 start. There were heavy coats in everyone’s arms and they shifted them around as they read from Mailer’s new book or looked at books on the tables they found themselves near. In front of me was a brick of a book filled with black and white photos of individual London buildings. Did you know there’s a Museum of Childhood in London’s East End?

I was right behind three camerapeople standing on chairs filming the event. They mostly obstructed my view of Mailer reading at the table. Sometimes I’d look at the little monitor screen that was on the side of one of the cameras and watch him that way. That didn’t bother me. As I said, I had said my goodbye a few years ago. I only came last night to briefly see what he looked like and to see who would turn out. I wouldn’t be staying for the whole thing. I had somewhere to go.

The crowd was much younger than I thought it would be. Sure there were people my age who remember reading ‘Armies of the Night’ in college. There were quite a few faces there that you knew were somebody, especially when they got to go beyond the velvet rope to a seat that was being held for them by a friend or spouse up near the stage waving at them. But there were a lot of kids in their 20s and 30s.

Mailer alluded to that age group before he started reading. He mentioned how he’s normally ‘unduly pessimistic’ about the state of reading and books. But he said coming into these stores ‘cheers me again’, seeing so many young people reading books in the store so intently, like in a library. He meant specifically the big stores which you wouldn’t think he’d like, but he appreciated the crowds they could accommodate for such a reading. He probably missed the crowds, living up in Provincetown all year now. He was glad to see the people who’d come out on a cold night for him.

It was a clear night too, and as you looked at him up there, small, with his hair as white as the typed pages he was reading from, you could see the night over Union Square out windows on either side of the stage. It was that deep blue dark with lights from offices and restaurants like jewels on a velvet display cloth. Out the left window you could see those numbers flashing on that 14th Street building changing as fast as numbers at a gas pump when you’ve only got two dollars, like you often did when Mailer’s hair was dark and thick with curls and he was the darling, maddening cock of the literary walk.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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