Gessner on Mailer (and others)

categories: Cocktail Hour


Striding toward his undergrad Forms of New Journalism class, David Gessner felt tired after a long term and two book deadlines, but at the same time buoyed, as always, by the class itself, which had renewed his faith that young students still took reading seriously.  In certain moods Gessner, an egoist if not a narcissist, considered himself America’s best essayist, though in others despaired that his work had not found a larger audience. Conflicted by these thoughts, and sweating from the summer-like humidity, he stopped at the water fountain (which they called a “bubbler” back in Worcester by the way) and drank deeply.

In the few seconds it took to sip from the arc of water, several thoughts rushed through Gessner’s mind. He wondered how the class would react to the assigned reading, Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night.  In that book, a piece of nonfiction that today might have led to a spanking on Oprah’s couch, Mailer follows the exploits of a character called Norman Mailer as he joins the

famous 1968 anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon.  Mailer writes of Mailer in the third person to the extent that one might wonder if this book gave birth to the commonplace that speaking of oneself in the third person is a sign of egomania.   Mailer refers to himself as “America’s greatest novelist” and seems to find his own rivalry for attention with Robert Lowell at least as worthy of note as a certain ugly war in Southeast Asia, but readers somehow don’t hate him, or rather, hate him a little, but find him somewhat redeemed by his own admission of his many flaws.  Gessner wondered if the class would share his feelings that Mailer had redeemed himself, or would just be put off by the writer’s boasting and endless self-fascination (not to mention all that third person use of his own name).  As Gessner wiped water away from his mouth with the back of his hand, he hoped for the later. Whatever you wanted to say about the book, it was one of the most original things they had read all term.

Which was saying something.  Gessner had been pleased by the term’s reading list but surprised, in more case than one, by student reactions. He would not have expected so much love, at this late date, for On the Road with its now wildly dated references to “tea” and “hepcats” and “way gone chicks,” not to mention its picaresque narrative, but the students seemed more than happy to head out on the road with Sal and Dean. Gessner had been  equally surprised by the dual spirit of confusion and revulsion with which the same students made their way through Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, which their hapless teacher had pegged, before the term, as the one book most likely to hold their attention. But no, they found it disorienting and silly and kind of mean, not liking, in the spirit of this generation’s moral memoirists, the way the author, in their perception, seemed to use Kesey and the Pranksters. They didn’t fall for Wolfe’s simulated trippy language either—wham…bang…ssssssss!!!…… Yes, the professor had been surprised but not nearly as much as he was by the Hunter Thompson-mania that would soon follow. If Gessner had thought that Wolfe would hook the kids, he suspected that Fear and Loathing would seem outdated.  But no….Thompson, who seemed to have been formally conflated, in a couple of student minds, with Johnny Depp, came in for none of the tssk-tssking that Wolfe had.  Despite Thompson’s  drug-swallowing and  liquor-swilling, he was  let off the hook for a fair enough and time tested reason: he was funny.

Gessner thought all this, more or less, as he stood up from the bubbler and headed toward class. He remembered that as a group they had been quite fond of Joan Didion, one of the few writers still actively writing, and one that many students knew through Philip Lopate’s personal essay and anthology.  Didion’s style seemed a closer cousin to the personal, essayistic kind of writing they saw, in much less refined and masterly versions, in their own workshops. The students, like their professor, had been happily surprised by the wildness and genre-mixing of Terry Southern, and had also, here unlike their professor, found Michael Herr’s Vietnam notes from Dispatches alive and new.  Gessner had noted an inordinate amount of attention focused on authors’ intentions during the term, and wondered if this were a result of living in the age of James Frey.  This sense, of the class as judge and jury of the author’s morality, was never more pronounced than in the term’s last book, In Cold Blood. Granted the professor has somewhat tilted the table by showing the movie, Capote, that, wonderfully entertaining as it was, seemed to take the position that Capote’s own cold bloodedness, in extracting the story from the poor murderers and the showing it to the world, was almost on par with that of the killers themselves.

Gessner recalled that in her intro to Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion had written that writers “are always selling someone out.” Gessner of course knew of this from his own experience; to tell a good story, in nonfiction, you had to get people to trust you and, yet, if the story was going to be honest you couldn’t worry too much about making, or keeping, friends. And he also understood how one could feel empathy for people and situations but also sense the story there, and be excited, from a narrative perspective, by the same, sometimes sad events. Certainly he has experienced it while traveling along the Gulf during the oil spill last summer: the dual sense of “how horrible”/this is a good story.

Gessner composed himself before stepping into the class.  If he hoped the students got one thing out of the class, it was that you could write about yourself –look at Mailer or Hunter Thompson–but that you might also want to scribble down notes, and do some thinking, about the greater world around you. This was not a new or startling revelation about the current memoir generation, Gessner knew, and even as he had it, he tempered it with another thought.  The best nonfiction always has a personal element, and that is what the straight-laced critiques of the current scene missed. We do want to read personal writing; we want juice and interest and we want to see what it’s like to be in someone else’s mind. But that element  could be yoked to reporting, to going outward, to journalism.   That would be something exciting to try, a journalism you could almost call “new” if a not-so-modest man named Norman Mailer hadn’t been doing it  over forty years ago.



  1. Donna Treolo writes:

    When I came to page 197, I was finally able to grasp what is so surreal about The Armies of the Night. The story has a mythical quality to it. As Mailer describes his “long revery about the war in Vietnam….not the most comfortable slumber, for the mattress had old stuffing and was not two inches thick (as well as dirty) and the springs on the cot had lost their tone so the bed curved like a hammock….”
    Sounds like…
    The castle dungeon was very dark and cold when Arthur finally lay down on the straw mat on the dank floor; Arthur thought of his sword and wondered if it was still hidden in the forest where he had left it two nights ago. Unable to sleep Arthur listened to the other prisoners as they whispered rumors about the trial….

    We have been taught to believe the Nonfiction genre is well defined and the rules are stringent. It is ok to laugh, cry and evoke human emotions in our work, to stray too far into the fiction realm is treason! Or at the very least an uncomfortable workshop experience. I’m glad we read all of the books!

  2. George de Gramont writes:

    Interesting change of pace.Encouraging comments about your students.