Posted in Essays, Fighters & Writers, tagged A Ticket to the Circus, Edith Wharton, Fighters & Writers, J.G. Ballard, Memoirs, Norman Mailer, Norris Church Mailer, Now: Zero, Poetry in Pictures Series, The American Interest, The Executioner’s Song, The Fight, The Mailer Review, The Naked and the Dead, Walt Whitman on December 9, 2010 |
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“The most electric of nations must naturally provide the boldest circuits of coincidence,” Norman Mailer proclaimed. My coincidences involving the writer my not amount to anything grand or revealing, but they might be worth mentioning all the same. Twice now Mailer-related work of mine which was written earlier appeared in print very soon after one of my subject’s death.
The title essay of Fighters & Writers was first published in an edition of The Mailer Review commemorating the novelist’s life soon after it ended. I discuss several writers, but Mailer does figure prominently in the piece. I’d started composing it years earlier and finally finished it soon before he died in 2007. In another essay in the collection, I mention a critic who made a derisive remark about Mailer in something that ran soon after the public memorial service held to honor the author of The Naked and the Dead, The Fight and The Executioner’s Song.
Which brings me to coincidence number two. The January/February 2011 issue of The American Interest contains my assessment of three Mailer-focused memoirs, including A Ticket to the Circus by Norris Church Mailer, who died on November 21, 2010. I wrote the not-very-kind review essay a few months before it actually ended up in the magazine.
While my essays about Mailer and his wife simply happened to show up soon after their deaths, two instances of this put me in uncomfortably proximity to the narrator of J.G. Ballard’s story “Now: Zero” who believes his writing about people can spell their demise…
Flipping through a copy of TAI, I stumbled on minor coincidences of another kind. On one page I saw a reference to Edith Wharton; on another, a poem by Walt Whitman. As it happens, the fourth short film in the Poetry In Pictures Series is based on a Wharton poem; the second, on a Whitman poem. (I wrote the third.)
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I dedicated Fighters & Writers to José Torres (1936-2009), the world light heavyweight boxing champion from 1965 to1966 who later co-authored a book about Muhammad Ali and wrote a biography about Mike Tyson. In the title essay, I recount meeting and talking with the International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee. The piece first appeared in The Mailer Review. Though the essay was written prior to Norman Mailer’s death, the issue of the journal carrying it came out soon after – and immediately before his friend José died.
Mailer (1923-2007) also dedicated a book – 1967’s Why Are We in Vietnam? – to José. (Mailer, of course, wrote quite a lot about boxing, which means he comes up several times in Fighters & Writers). Mailer also writes (in the third person) about him in Miami and the Siege of Chicago when he explains his decision to leave the scene of police attacking antiwar protesters outside the 1968 Democratic convention: “And he had a legitimate excuse for leaving. One of his best friends was with him, a professional boxer, once a champion. If the police ever touched him, the boxer would probably be unable to keep himself from taking out six or eight men. The police would then come near to killing the boxer in return. It was a real possibility. He had a responsibility to get his friend out of there, and did…” Though Mailer doesn’t mention the fighter’s name, José told me the story of being in Chicago with Mailer. I remember him expressing gratitude for Mailer’s protectiveness.
Mailer’s wife Norris Church Mailer nicely captures José’s generosity, good humor and effect on others in A Ticket to the Circus (2010): “No one could laugh like José. He slapped his knee and fell off his chair laughing, which made everyone else laugh, too. I will always have a soft spot for José, who has now passed over like so many of our old friends, bless him. He was the kind of friend who would pick up dinner and visit a person he hardly knew, just because his friend asked him to.” I don’t claim to have known José very well, but I also developed a similar fondness for him.
Fighters & Writers contains several photographs, and I toyed with the idea of including this picture of José and me, which was taken at his apartment in Manhattan in 2002. I subsequently lost a great of weight (and I write about the process and the use of boxing weight classes as a frame of reference in an essay, also in Fighters & Writers, that first ran in Blood & Thunder). I decided to leave the unflattering photo out of the book, but it does bring back some nice memories.
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