two alternatives invites our concernnsince neither the wife nor the femalenprofessor has much reality. The narrator,nbeneath his literary flourishes,ndoes not seem to care deeply hownthings turn out: Why should we?nYet such lives are not withoutnpoignancy, and the epidemic of collapsingnmarriages should generatensome probing reflections. What we receiveninstead is a distillation of generationsnof professional psychologicalnunwisdom as the narrator remarks thatnthere are, of course, “the traditionallynmarried, battling, shrieking, and occupyingneach other’s brains like somenterrible tumor until one of them dies.”nNever does it occur to Doctorow thatnby equating family with misery, henhelps to foster the phenomenon of thenbook’s numerous “half-married” characters,npeople, that is, drifting to divorce,nfoolish infatuations, and finalnloneliness. The coming undone of thenlives of these people is not seen asnlinked in any way to their values; it is,ninstead, some unaccountable maladynbefalling the narrator’s generation as ifnfrom the sky.nNor does perception improve whennthe focus widens beyond the frayingnlives of the writers. Now that thennarrator rides the subway to and fromnhis loft in the Village, his native NewnYork for the first time looms as anstrange and threatening place. (Presumably,nhe had loftily dismissed asnfascist propaganda 20 years of rumorsnabout crime and chaos.) Any sense ofnhow such disintegration might havencome about goes no further than commentsnwhich might appear in letters tonThe Nation—the zany idea that mostnof the crime stems from the newnimmigrants—Laotians, Vietnamese,nHaitians, et al., who “have come herenbecause we have made their landsnunlivable.” It is an idea only an intellectualn(with the visceral hostility tonAmerica that marks so many) couldnswallow! His remedy for the blight ofnsubway graffiti, if equally brainless, atnleast possesses a kind of idiot charm:n”Paint the subway cars in profusions ofntropical colors” to satisfy “the longingnof the soot-choked urban heart for thensun life of the tropics.”nAdmirers of Doctorow may seek tonfob the book off on the public bynsaying that it mirrors a segment of lifenin our times — the insecure, self-npreoccupied world of urban intellectualsnwhere every subject is processedninto cocktail party chatter. Lackingnany norms beyond the pop psychologyncliches of self-fulfillment. Lives of thenPoets is, however, no satire, no examination.nIt is instead an instance of thenmalaise it reflects, a mirror only in thensense of having a carefully wroughtnsurface without depth, a book as emptynas the unquestioned promises of endlessnvistas of personal fulfillment thatnallure its pathetic characters. Thenspread of such a sensibility raises questionsnabout the survival of more thannjust the novel as an art form.nNorman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’tnDance is also a slim work, a compendiumnof the author’s many metaphysical,nsocial, and psychological ideasnenfolded into a mystery-thriller plot. Itnis Mailer’s 1964 An American Dreamnshortened so that the narrator cannotntake the slightest action, it seems,nwithout Mailer doing philosophicalnheavy breathing on such vintagenthemes as the violence lurking in thenAmerican psyche, the roots of cancernin existential funk, or the prevalencenof occult forces of a Manichaean nature.nThe underdeveloped themesnthreaten time and again to swamp thenstory line, the primary focus in thisnsubgenre. Jolts of lurid violence, however,ndo bring readers back to the plotneach time Mailer’s musings seemnabout to submerge his tale.nWriter Tim Madden (Mafler’s fictionalnstand-in) awakens from a seriousndrunk on the 24th day after his wife’sndeparture to find, first, a strange tattoonon his arm, second, blood coveringnthe front seat of his car, and, a bitnlater, the severed head of a woman (hisnwife?) in a woodland hiding placenwhere he stashes his marijuana harvest.nWith little recollection of thenprevious evening’s fun. Madden mustnsuspect his own considerable violencenas well as the violence in nearly everynother character in the off-season Provincetownncommunity. Well he might,nfor it is a given of Mafler’s world viewnthat America is a murderous place,nwith ample justification for what otherwisenwould be paranoia. Whether itnbe the local lawman, a Viet vet withnthe look of “one Christian athlete whonhated to lose,” a good-old-boy typennamed Spider Nissen, or a homosexualnmillionaire—each has the savagerynnnto kill. Moreover, given the adulterousnsexual gymnastics in which all engage,nany one of the characters may have anmotive, especially since nearly everyonenin town seems to have some link,nusually sexual, to the unsavory past ofnMadden or his apparentiy dead wife.nUnlike Doctorow’s collection.nTough Guys Don’t Dance manages tonsustain the reader’s interest. The conventionsnof the thriller help makenthe violence acceptable. The coincidences,nin turn, take place in ancontext of existential risk which Mailernlabors to create. If he sees demonicnforces — psychic, political, evennsupernatural—lurking everywhere.nMailer at least does not pretend thatnAsian refugees are the true sources ofnterror in America. In Tough Guys he isnan aspiring heavyweight in a lightweightnclass of fiction, giving a performancenwhich, if incongruous, is notnentirely insipid. Indeed, his return to antraditional form of fiction comes as anrelief after his ventures in quasijournalism,nsemi-fichonal biography,nand the bloated historical potboiler.nThe last decade’s recession from thenapocalyptic mode of utterance maynmake his overwrought vision less compelling,nbut he is not boring or merelynartsy. There is no need for any of hisncharacters to whine about the death ofnthe novel.n”Ik-llcr lliuii any ficHnii I kiinw-. t.ivi’^^ a’,nllic lich’ illuiuiiiiili-s ihc MHircc fromnwhich liction slniims.’nNcU^WLLknA curious symmetry exists, however,nbetween Doctorow’s and Mailer’snslender books. In both, the charactersnsuff^er from the attenuation of healthynties to families, communities, and tonlarger, rooted systems of meaningnwhich would fill the vacuum in theirnlives. Both writers work from thenaxiom that the traditional sources ofnmeaning simply have ceased to worknfor modern people (an assumptionnwhich, if repeated often enough byninfluential enough people, has a selffulfillingncharacter). This modernndogma propels the lives of millionsnand pushes the two authors’ charactersnin different directions. Doctorow’snpoets wallow in narcissism—whethernin hot tubs, chic oriental monasteries,nor, typically, in fleeting aflairs. ThenOCTOBER 1985111n