Barry Leeds

Mailer and Me

How far back does this go? I was already reading Mailer as a teenager. When I was a sixteen-year-old Ordinary Seaman on the S.S. John M. Bozeman, a shipmate recommended The Naked and the Dead. My father, particularly impressed by "The Time of Her Time," gave me Advertisements for Myself. I still have that beat-up copy, a much-underlined and annotated first edition.

I was living on Charles Street off Greenwich Avenue in the Village, a year out of Columbia, when I read The Deer Park and the first version of An American Dream, serialized in Esquire's first eight issues of 1964. During the 1963-64 academic year, I was 22 years old and holding down what amounted to four jobs: revising and wrapping up my M.A. thesis at Columbia on The Private Memoirs of Sir Kenelm Digby; teaching two evening English composition courses at CCNY; taking a 12 hour course load toward the Ph.D. at NYU; and working nights at the New York Times credit desk, making decisions on whether to let "business opportunity" ads run without prepayment and taking my break at Gough's, the great, grubby newspaperman's bar across the street, where a draft beer was still 15 cents and you could get a big hamburger with fried onions and french fries for 85 cents. During this time, I wrote my first letter to Mailer. Given the arrogant tone of it, coupled with my knowledge now of what his life was like at age 40, I'm not surprised he never answered. Today, I can be more understanding of his reticence. He tells us much about his perspective at the time in the introduction he wrote eight years later for the 1971 edition of Deaths for the Ladies (and other disasters):

Deaths for the Ladies was written through a period of fifteen months, a time when my life was going through many changes including a short stretch in jail, the abrupt dissolution of one marriage, and the beginning of another. It was also a period in which I wrote very little, and so these poems and short turns of prose were my lonely connection to the one act which gave a sense of self-importance. I was drinking heavily in that period, not explosively as I had at times in the past, but steadily--most nights I went to bed with all the vats loaded, and for the first time, my hangovers in the morning were steeped in dread. Before, I had never felt weak without a drink--now I did. I felt heavy, hard on the first steps of middle age, and in need of a drink. so it occurred to me it was finally not altogether impossible that I become an alcoholic. And I hated the thought of that. My pride and my idea of myself were subject to slaughter in such a vice.

. . . I used to wake up in those days. . . , and the beasts who were ready to root in my entrails were prowling outside. To a man living on his edge, New York is a jungle . . .

* * * * * *

It was not so very funny. In the absence of a greater faith, a professional keeps himself in shape by remaining true to his professionalism. Amateurs write when they are drunk. For a serious writer to do that is equivalent to a professional football player throwing imaginary passes in traffic when he is bombed, and smashing his body into parked cars on the mistaken impression that he is taking out the linebacker. Such a professional football player will feel like crying in the morning when he discovers his ribs are broken.

I would feel like crying too. My pride, my substance, my capital, was to be found in my clarity of mind. . .

And yet Mailer brought himself back from these depths, and went on to accomplish more in his life and art than he had before this period of depression. That's why he's a model for all of us, writers or not: he has personal courage as well as talent.

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