2. Last week I mentioned that we'd watched (streaming Netflix) a new documentary about comedian Don Rickles (Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project), and I mentioned that Joyce and I had seen him at the Front Row Theater near Cleveland with our friends Ted and Sandy Clawson (I taught in Aurora with Ted, who was the band director). Well ... curious ... I got on eBay and found someone selling the program from that event ($6.92), and I popped for it. (See below.)
But then I realize: This can't be. Joyce and I were teaching at Lake Forest College in Illinois that year (78-79). Did we come back for spring break? Or was it another year? Damn! I just paid $6.92 for the wrong thing?!?!?!
3. This week I finished an early novel by John A. Williams (Night Song), a 1961 novel about the NYC jazz world, a novel that features a character known as "Eagle," a gifted but tormented musician based on Charlie "Bird" Parker (1920-55).
As the wounded Eagle falls through the sky toward his collision with death (drug OD), we meet some others who are trying to catch him. But can't. There are a couple of white characters--one admirable (a woman living with Keel, the black owner of a coffee shop), one less so, David Hillary (known as "The Prof" because he'd once been a university teacher), a man tormented by his own demon (alcohol). Hillary goes to work at the coffee shop ... complications ensue (including his passion for the white woman--unrequited). Hillary helps save Eagle from one near-fatal OD) very early in the novel, then fails to do anything later on when he sees a cop pounding on the musician.
The novel is very good, and I was moved by the incidents, the craft, the language. Williams was talented, and, once again, I can't believe I had not heard of him until I read his obit in the New York Times early in July 2015. I've read three of his books now. Plan to read them all! Next one is on order ...
4. Finally ... Writer's Almanac today had a fairly lengthy post about writer Norman Mailer, born this day in 1923 (link to WA). I mentioned on Facebook today that in 2007 (when Mailer died), I'd given a little talk about him in Morning Meeting at Western Reserve Academy where I was teaching at the time. Here it is, unedited.
Norman Mailer, R.I.P.
Let me tell you a story …
It’s not my story—I didn’t write it—but I’ve always liked it, and it’s not very long … so here goes …
A man and a woman are walking along a city street. They have been lovers. And now they are breaking up. Here’s the first sentence in the story: The writer was having a fight with his young lady. They don’t walk far before she says, “I’m sick and tired of you being so superior. What do you have to be superior about?” The writer quietly disagrees. Later—even more angry—she says he’s like a mummy, all wrapped up in himself. As her anger deepens—and as her accusations become more bitter—he begins to feel uneasy, not about her anger (though that does bother him), but about the notebook in his pocket. He had just thought of an idea to put into his notebook, and it made him anxious to think that if he did not remove his notebook from his vest pocket and jot the down the thought, he was likely to forget it. He tries to resist the impulse. But can’t. He stops in the street, pulls out the notebook, starts writing an idea for a story, a story about a writer breaking up with his girlfriend. The young woman, seeing him, begins to cry. “Why, you’re nothing but a notebook,” she shrieked, and ran away from him down the street, her high heels mocking her misery in their bright tattoo upon the sidewalk. He stares after her. Soon she’s a block away. He starts jogging after her, yelling that he can explain. And as he ran the notebook jiggled warmly against his side, a puppy of a playmate, always faithful, always affectionate.
Norman Mailer published that story in 1951. He was twenty-eight years old; I was seven. He would publish much, much more over the years—novels, long works of nonfiction, essays, screenplays, poems, plays … you name it, Mailer probably wrote it. He made films. Ran for Mayor of New York (he lost). Married four times. Sired nine children. Carried on feuds with some of the great names in American letters. He won the Pulitzer Prize. He won the National Book Award. And countless other literary honors. He never won the Nobel Prize, and that irked him, for Norman Mailer had an ego, a titanic ego that constantly crashed into icebergs of all sorts over the years. He hit those icebergs, head on. But he never sank.
Here are some of his best-known books. … [show them]
His most recent novel is this one. It’s a story about Hitler that came out earlier this year. It’s been tottering atop the Tower-of-Pisan pile beside my bed, but I’ve not read it. Not yet. I’d read that he was sick. And I had a feeling this would be the last novel he would ever write. And I wanted to save it. To savor it. To remember it.
Norman Mailer died last weekend. He was 84 years old. He was one of the heroes of my youth. Several times, I have dreamed—actually dreamed, at night—of meeting him. It never happened.
I do have his signature on this book, The Time of Our Time [show it], a collection of pieces he published back in 1998. It will have to do. His name scrawled on the title page.
So as I think this morning about that little story “The Notebook,” a story now more than a half-century old, I think how fitting a way it is to remember him. Norman Mailer charged through his life, barging uninvited into rooms, banging into polite people, making rude noises and ruder gestures, taking swings at enemies, celebrating, loving ferociously, enjoying every second of his life. Standing up for Civil Rights. Protesting the Vietnam War. Going to jail for his beliefs.
And we should be grateful—all of us—that through all those years he carried that notebook with him, and even at the damnedest, most irritating times, he pulled it out. And took his pen, whose ink mixed acid and fire and blood and even sometimes poison, and wrote those words that sometimes made us shriek and cry and run away. But could also comfort and agitate and shame and inspire and chide and enrage. And even make us weep.
Which is exactly what I did last weekend when I read that he was gone.