Saturday, January 26, 2008

Barbary Snore

"Barbary Shore" was Norman Mailer's second novel, published in 1951, and it pales in comparison to his first. "The Naked and the Dead," published in 1948, when Mailer was all of 25, was his first novel, and it thrust him into the limelight. (Yes, great novels actually used to thrust people into the limelight back in the day.) "The Naked and the Dead" was an epic, 700-page novel about the Pacific theater of World War II. Along with Irwin Shaw's "The Young Lions," and James Jones's "From Here to Eternity," it was considered one of the great epics to come out of World War II. So how did Mailer follow such a success? By writing a book that was the antithesis of his first novel.

"Barbary Shore" is much shorter, a comparatively brisk 400 pages, with only a handful of characters. I would suspect that Mailer was running away from his early success, deliberately trying to create a work of art that bore no relation and paid no debt to his first book. I think he wanted to change gears, he didn't want to be stuck with the label of realist, the next James T. Farrell. Unfortunately, this time out, he didn't create a very compelling book. In the beginning, the main plot of the story seems to revolve around Lovett, the narrator, struggling to regain his memory. He is a veteran, and save for the occasional flashback of combat, can remember nothing of his past life before the war. Okay, that's an interesting enough plot device. But Mailer doesn't make it the main thread of the book. Lovett's struggle to regain his memory is hardly mentioned again. Instead, the plot focuses on Lovett's landlady, his fellow tenant Hollingsworth, and McLeod, another tenant who turns out to be the husband of the landlady.

The crux of the novel are Hollingsworth's conversations with McLeod, witnessed by Lovett, in which Hollingsworth is interrogating McLeod about his Communist past. Despite the high stakes that you may think are involved, these "interrogations" don't involve anything remotely close to anyone's definition of torture, unless your definition includes being forced to slog through page after page of didactic dialogue. Okay Norman, you read "Darkness at Noon," I get it. There's zero tension to this part of the novel, in part because it's not at all clear what the stakes are. It's not even clear which side anyone is on, who Hollingsworth is working for, or what information McLeod could possibly have that would be of use or interest to anyone. It's certainly of no interest to most readers, that's for sure. McLeod apparently possesses some object that Hollingsworth longs to get his hands on, and of course we never find out what it is, it's just a literary "MacGuffin," to use Alfred Hitchcock's term for an object that motivates the actions of the characters but whose specific details don't matter. All that matters is that someone wants it. (Ie, the microfilm in "North By Northwest," and the briefcase in "Ronin.")

In short, Mailer created a boring book filled with characters that bear little resemblance to people in the real world. He would do better with later books, so perhaps "Barbary Shore" was just a learning experience for him. Interestingly enough, Irwin Shaw's second novel, "The Troubled Air," also published in 1951, also dealt with Communism in America. Unlike "Barbary Shore," Shaw's "The Troubled Air" is actually very good, and definitely worth reading. It deals with a radio show that may have Communists in its cast. (There was an actual pamphlet from 1950 called "Red Channels" that purported to name people in TV, radio, and movies who had "Communist sympathies.")

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