Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tough Guys Don’t Dance by Norman Mailer

Over-the-top ’80s noir
Amidst the esteemed literary output of Norman Mailer, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, published in 1984, sticks out like a sore thumb. Here the renowned author tries his hand at the genre of crime fiction, in effect saying, “I may have won two Pulitzers, but I can still write like a tough guy.” The result is something akin to if Hemingway wrote porn. The narrator, Tim Madden, distraught over the recent departure of his wife, meets a couple of out-of-towners at a bar and gets loaded. He wakes up the next morning with a new tattoo, a car seat covered in blood, and no memory of what happened. As he tries to piece together the events of that night, he finds himself investigating a murder he himself may have committed.

The novel is set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a tourist destination at the very tip of Cape Cod. The story takes place in the off-season, when P-town is reduced to a sort of ghost town populated by hardcore lifers and the spirits of the dead. Mailer does a great job of describing the quirky, disturbing characters that lurk in the creepy underbelly of any small town, but he takes it so far to extremes that he approaches surrealism. Every character in the book is hooked on hard drugs and booze, sex-addicted to the point of having a juvenile obsession with genitalia, and firmly convinced of the existence of spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural forces. And above all, every character in the book is capable of murder. If you’re willing to suspend enough disbelief to exist in this world, then you’re in for a pretty good ride.

While reading Tough Guys Don't Dance, one gets the feeling that Mailer dashed the book off in one fell swoop, with no self-editing. The prose is brisk and addictive. Once you start reading, it’s difficult to stop. The rapid fire dialogue carries you along like a swift current, even though what you’re reading may be totally ridiculous. The book is a noir thriller like Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane used to write, but updated for the 1980s. Where it fails is when Mailer forgets he’s having fun and feels the need to remind us of his literary laurels with passages that are far too lofty to fit the book. Even the low-life druggies and thugs in the book occasionally lapse into the voice of a Harvard-educated poet. As a narrator, Madden is far too sensitive for this book. Mailer wants us to know he’s a tough guy—an ex-boxer and bartender with a prison record—but can’t help reminding us that he’s also a writer. Thus, on his way to his marijuana patch, Tim regales us with an ode to fall colors. If Mailer wanted to write a dirty shocker of a crime novel, he should have immersed himself completely in that atmosphere and stopped shooting for another Pulitzer. There’s a lot of graphic sex in the book, or at least graphic sex talk. Mailer seems to particularly enjoy ribald depictions of homosexuality, as if revelling in his own naughtiness, but thirty years after publication homosexuality isn’t as taboo as it used to be, and 21st century readers are likely to find such passages more silly than shocking.

The actual mystery story is confusing as hell, and the resolution doesn’t particularly satisfy. Memory loss is an old chestnut of the genre that can’t help but feel like a cliché; likewise, the way that killers engage in lengthy confessions of their sins before killing, rather than just pull the trigger and get it over with. Without such confessions there would be no resolution, because Madden’s a lousy detective. Nevertheless, there are some really suspenseful moments here and a cast of delightfully creepy characters that keep you interested enough to want to see what’s around the next turn. Tough Guys Don’t Dance isn’t an exceptionally good book, but it is entertaining. It straddles the line between a disturbing cult classic and a bit of kitsch that’s “so bad it’s good.” The less you take it seriously, the more you’ll enjoy it.

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