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THE BIG EMPTY by Norman Mailer


Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America

by Norman Mailer, John Buffalo Mailer

Pub Date: March 1st, 2006
ISBN: 1-56025-824-1
Publisher: Nation Books/Perseus

Reflections, rants and racy ruminations by the octogenarian author of The Naked and the Dead and other gems of American literature, interspersed with occasional questions and comments from his 27-year-old son, who is wise enough to know which of Mailer’s thoughts are of greater interest.

Many of the pieces in this eclectic collection are edited transcriptions of conversations between the Mailers; a few are previously published essays and speeches. NM and JBM have a lot on their minds: the current Bush White House; how many hard punches boxer Jose Torres took in his career; 9/11; Iraq; fascism; the number of gods there are in the universe. Their exchanges are generally genial, though Mailer père sometimes reminds Mailer fils that he is young and just doesn’t get it. The only conversation that contains any real friction is about marijuana, a subject upon which both men claim authority. The conversations are chockablock with NM’s wit, certitude and, at times, gender cluelessness. He observes that the Bush administration holds great faith in the stupidity of the American people, that the feckless Democrats deserved to lose in 2004, that sex with many women is instructive. He fires again across the bow of New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, whom he once called “a one-woman kamikaze.” Here, he modifies the kamikaze part: “They, at least, were brave, whereas she may not have the outdoor guts of a pissant.” He makes some striking comments about writing, crediting Hemingway for teaching him about the “tensile strength of a sentence,” and some provocative ones about existentialism and Sartre. Both father and son worry that the days of the serious American novel are over, leaving us with only “the Big Empty.”

Norman remains a national treasure, and his fans must be grateful to his son for convincing the old man to sit down and answer a few questions. His answers are illuminating, annoying, amusing.