” . . . knew every quirk within lust’s labyrinth and were professed critic in lechery.”
—Ben Jonson

Cracks are appearing in the idol of high culture fabricated by the Victorians. Matthew Arnold eloquently expressed the vision of the educated person who joins moral commitment with breadth of vision and transcends the narrowness of religion and the shallowness of pure aestheticism. This ideal of harmony, overtime, hardened into a petty orthodoxy—antiphilistine gestures against the beliefs most people inherited. The educated liberal could feel assured that his enlightened positions and his seriousness about art as a surrogate religion (another, less happy, feature of Arnold’s thought) both guaranteed his superiority over the benighted masses and would also find vindication in history.

,P>Signs of wavering belief, however, have been appearing for some time now. New ideas are not fitting into the prescribed modes, making the correct ritualistic gestures hard to enact with grace. Even within the temples of art, questions arise about the civilizing value of learning and literature, as intellectual skepticism begins to devour its parents. Two recent novels, without exactly meaning to, show the cracks in the once complacent view of the world, as the void left by the repudiation of the past exacts its price on the makers of culture.


At a publication party for a New York writer (one of the “poets” of the collection’s longish tide story) a boozy author confronts Doctorow’s narrator with a lugubrious question: “Tell me . . . is there a writer here who really believes in what he is doing? Do I? Do you?” For the narrator the awkward moment passes, but for the reader the question lingers after he finishes this blessedly short, banal, first-person glimpse into the mid-life crises overtaking the narrator and his literary friends. What depresses the reader is not the simple suspicion that Lives of the Poets represents a successful author’s attempt to cash in on his name by putting out a handful of fairly opaque short stories and a semiautobiographical reflective narrative at $15 for the batch. Pecuniary itches, like occasional bad books, are common enough even in good writers. What sinks the spirits is the lack of any serious vision, however askew or flawed, in the 60 pages of musings that constitute the book’s final section. Even a hastily done book can tell much about an author: Doctorow’s latest suggests narrative skill without any corresponding range of insight.

Even at best, the mid-life tribulations of Manhattan literati are a subject both insular and sad. Will the narrator return from self-imposed separation and rejoin his fastidious wife of 18 years in suburban comfort, abandoning the bohemian chic of the Village? Or will he take off with a cool. promiscuous Eng. Lit. prof half his years? Will he, after a lifetime of accomplishment, sink slowly into dereliction? The last possibility seems unlikely, given his testy self-possession and detachment. Neither of the first two alternatives invites our concern since neither the wife nor the female professor has much reality. The narrator, beneath his literary flourishes, does not seem to care deeply how things turn out: Why should we?

Yet such lives are not without poignancy, and the epidemic of collapsing marriages should generate some probing reflections. What we receive instead is a distillation of generations of professional psychological unwisdom as the narrator remarks that there are, of course, “the traditionally married, battling, shrieking, and occupying each other’s brains like some terrible tumor until one of them dies.” Never does it occur to Doctorow that by equating family with misery, he helps to foster the phenomenon of the book’s numerous “half-married” characters, people, that is, drifting to divorce, foolish infatuations, and final loneliness. The coming undone of the lives of these people is not seen as linked in any way to their values; it is, instead, some unaccountable malady befalling the narrator’s generation as if from the sky.

Nor does perception improve when the focus widens beyond the fraying lives of the writers. Now that the narrator rides the subway to and from his loft in the Village, his native New York for the first time looms as a strange and threatening place. (Presumably, he had loftily dismissed as fascist propaganda 20 years of rumors about crime and chaos.) Any sense of how such disintegration might have come about goes no further than comments which might appear in letters to The Nation—the zany idea that most of the crime stems from the new immigrants—Laotians, Vietnamese, Haitians, et al., who “have come here because we have made their lands unlivable.” It is an idea only an intellectual (with the visceral hostility to America that marks so many) could swallow! His remedy for the blight of subway graffiti, if equally brainless, at least possesses a kind of idiot charm: “Paint the subway cars in profusions of tropical colors” to satisfy “the longing of the soot-choked urban heart for the sun life of the tropics.”

Admirers of Doctorow may seek to fob the book off on the public by saying that it mirrors a segment of life in our times—the insecure, self-preoccupied world of urban intellectuals where every subject is processed into cocktail party chatter. Lacking any norms beyond the pop psychology cliches of self-fulfillment. Lives of the Poets is, however, no satire, no examination. It is instead an instance of the malaise it reflects, a mirror only in the sense of having a carefully wrought surface without depth, a book as empty as the unquestioned promises of endless vistas of personal fulfillment that allure its pathetic characters. The spread of such a sensibility raises questions about the survival of more than just the novel as an art form.

Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance is also a slim work, a compendium of the author’s many metaphysical, social, and psychological ideas enfolded into a mystery-thriller plot. It is Mailer’s 1964 An American Dream shortened so that the narrator cannot take the slightest action, it seems, without Mailer doing philosophical heavy breathing on such vintage themes as the violence lurking in the American psyche, the roots of cancer in existential funk, or the prevalence of occult forces of a Manichaean nature. The underdeveloped themes threaten time and again to swamp the story line, the primary focus in this subgenre. Jolts of lurid violence, however, do bring readers back to the plot each time Mailer’s musings seem about to submerge his tale.

Writer Tim Madden (Mafler’s fictional stand-in) awakens from a serious drunk on the 24th day after his wife’s departure to find, first, a strange tattoo on his arm, second, blood covering the front seat of his car, and, a bit later, the severed head of a woman (his wife?) in a woodland hiding place where he stashes his marijuana harvest. With little recollection of the previous evening’s fun. Madden must suspect his own considerable violence as well as the violence in nearly every other character in the off-season Provincetown community. Well he might, for it is a given of Mafler’s world view that America is a murderous place, with ample justification for what otherwise would be paranoia. Whether it be the local lawman, a Viet vet with the look of “one Christian athlete who hated to lose,” a good-old-boy type named Spider Nissen, or a homosexual millionaire—each has the savagery to kill. Moreover, given the adulterous sexual gymnastics in which all engage, any one of the characters may have a motive, especially since nearly everyone in town seems to have some link, usually sexual, to the unsavory past of Madden or his apparently dead wife.

Unlike Doctorow’s collection. Tough Guys Don’t Dance manages to sustain the reader’s interest. The conventions of the thriller help make the violence acceptable. The coincidences, in turn, take place in a context of existential risk which Mailer labors to create. If he sees demonic forces—psychic, political, even supernatural—lurking everywhere. Mailer at least does not pretend that Asian refugees are the true sources of terror in America. In Tough Guys he is an aspiring heavyweight in a lightweight class of fiction, giving a performance which, if incongruous, is not entirely insipid. Indeed, his return to a traditional form of fiction comes as a relief after his ventures in quasijournalism, semi-fictional biography, and the bloated historical potboiler. The last decade’s recession from the apocalyptic mode of utterance may make his overwrought vision less compelling, but he is not boring or merely artsy. There is no need for any of his characters to whine about the death of the novel.

A curious symmetry exists, however, between Doctorow’s and Mailer’s slender books. In both, the characters suffer from the attenuation of healthy ties to families, communities, and to larger, rooted systems of meaning which would fill the vacuum in their lives. Both writers work from the axiom that the traditional sources of meaning simply have ceased to work for modern people (an assumption which, if repeated often enough by influential enough people, has a self-fulfilling character). This modern dogma propels the lives of millions and pushes the two authors’ characters in different directions. Doctorow’s poets wallow in narcissism—whether in hot tubs, chic oriental monasteries, or, typically, in fleeting affairs. The result in fiction is more tiresome than even pathetic. Mailer’s figures live in a high-voltage world of internal and external violence. His protagonists stand ready at any moment to confront the existential challenges which will secure or compromise their manhood, bring them closer to psychic salvation or to the onset of cancer. As a result, Tough Guys does not tire the reader.

Yet emptiness is what haunts the works of both writers, though the responses of their characters differ widely—languishing and casual sexual indulgence as opposed to aggression and sexual orgies. Both sets of characters were spawned in a void once filled by meaningful, inherited norms. Mailer endeavors to generate a demonized world of self-created significance so as to avoid the abyss into which Doctorow’s writers are gently sinking, having lost their assurance that art and progressive attitudes will substitute for older verities. Indeed, Mailer’s Tim Madden might be thought of as the secret dream of Doctorow’s fuddled intellectuals who moan about the insignificance of their precious works: Madden’s violence and, especially, his sense of inhabiting a cosmos charged with significance, however dreadful, is what they vainly seek on more prosaic and trendy levels. Unfortunately, Mailer’s fascinating world is the projection of his own intensities. Its significances, like those of a paranoid’s vision, are not accessible to outsiders. It can entertain but cannot help those who are drifting in cultural disarray. Art alone does not, after all, save, as Doctorow’s tipsy poet has come to suspect.


[Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories, by E. L. Doctorow; Random House; New York]

[Tough Guys Don’t Dance, by Norman Mailer; Random House; New York]