What did Norman Mailer know about politics? Not much, I’d guess, and what he did know, he didn’t seem to care much about. That’s my impression, anyway, after having gone through about half of his essay on the 1968 GOP convention in Miami. Rather than attempt to place events in context or suggest some larger meaning, Mailer focuses almost exclusively on florid, moment-to-moment description. It’s impressive, in a way — Mailer’s certainly got a strong command of language — but it also displays a frustratingly limited perspective. Here’s his description of watching Rockefeller speak:
Except for his complexion, Rocky had an all but perfect face for President, virile, friendly, rough-hewn, of the common man, yet uncommon — Spencer Tracy’s younger brother gone into politics. He had only one flaw — an odd and unpleasant mouth, wide, unnaturally wide, with very thin lips. In the center of the mouth there seemed almost another mouth which did the speaking, somewhat thicker lips which pursed, opened, deliberated, all the while the slit-thin corners of the mouth seemed off on their own, not really moving with the center. So he gave the impression of a man to whom expert instruction had disclosed what he might be expected to say — therefore only the middle of the mouth would be on call.
A fine descriptive passage — yet, so far at least, it’s also more or less the exclusive means by which we are given to understand Rockefeller. There’s no history, no context, no voting record or anecdote, not even much in the way of helpful quotes — only a disembodied mouth which mars an otherwise handsome visage. Mailer’s unwillingness to report beyond his own fragmentary impressions is striking, especially in comparison to any current practitioners of his style of journalism. Even the most impressionistic political writers today — say, Matt Taibbi or James Wolcott — tend to flesh out their experiential detail with background information. After a while, Mailer’s refusal to engage with anything beyond the narrow confines of his own sensory experience seems terribly self-serving. And it’s not just the narcissism of excluding all information outside of one’s own immediate impressions either. Oh, he hunts down the vivid details with formidable skill, yet he gives his readers very little to do with those details — except, perhaps, be impressed that he hunted them down.