IN DARK, THREATENING TIMES LIKE THESE, MAYBE IT'S BETTER NOT TO GET a world-class novelist to start musing about the global gloom that hangs so heavily around us. Listening to Norman Mailer spin out his most pessimistic scenarios over a luncheon at Stanley Sheinbaum's Brentwood manse last Saturday, I was tempted to seek refuge at the bottom of our host's gleaming pool.
"We're going to lose our democracy in this process," said Mailer, speaking of the coming war with Iraq as the rest of us listlessly poked at spinach quiche and fresh éclairs. "We're in a pre-fascist atmosphere here in America."
Los Angeles Times books editor Steve Wasserman — who brought the now octogenarian author to town as part of the speakers program of his salonlike Institute for the Humanities — introduced Mailer as someone who seems to be currently "channeling Mark Twain." But Mailer, in brown cords and a blue blazer over a knit turtleneck, sounded more like he had been possessed by Cassandra.
"We are going to become a megabanana republic," he continued. "The army will forever have a much bigger role in all of our lives."
Mailer, who wrote brilliantly of World War II in his classic The Naked and the Dead, says the Bush administration sees the coming war as the best way to distract attention away from the "downslope" he says America has embarked upon. Yet this war, Mailer insists, is much more than domestic political distraction. It's also about a neoconservative drive for a Pax Americana. "This is about establishing the Near East as an outpost for world empire. It's about capturing Iraq's oil. It's about capturing Iraq's water. It's about controlling the Middle East."
But certainly the author of The Armies of the Night — the definitive account of the 1967 anti-war protests against the Pentagon — must be somewhat buoyed by the massive pro-peace turnout two weeks ago in the streets and plazas of the entire world?
"The anti-war groups are even more naive than they were in the '60s," Mailer guffawed. Not only are they "speaking to the choir," Mailer said with disdain, but the mostly baby-boom protesters lack sufficient fire in the belly to effectively confront the war makers. "Look at all those protesters, those young professionals pushed into the side streets by the police in the New York march. They all got bored and took out their cell phones. Probably on the phone with their brokers! No war for oil! Ha!"
Things got even darker when Mailer opened the floor to questions from my fellow Institute lunch companions. Put a couple dozen liberal intellectuals in any closed room nowadays and the tone is guaranteed to turn apocalyptic within minutes. And after they were primed by Mailer, the paranoia pumped freely. Why are the American people so blind? Didn't U.S. forces really set those oil-well fires in the last Gulf War? The whole scene was playing out as some sort of orgy of hopelessness until finally someone asked Mailer if he really believed the Bushies were smart enough and visionary enough to carry all this off. After all, previous attempts at American empire — from Guatemala to Vietnam — have all seemed to collapse into naught.
Mailer perked up his eyebrows, nodded his head and clarified that he was only talking about the intentions of Washington and that — in the end — the Bushites were in fact too frivolous and too shallow a crew to really follow through. "They're too inept," he said. And the overwhelming gloom began to slowly lift.
"They'll never succeed because they don't have enough depth of knowledge, enough compassion, or nearly enough understanding of the perversity of human nature, because the conservatives are half-right. That's why I now call myself a Left Conservative. The conservatives are right because that human perversity tends to eventually screw up everybody's plans."
As to the White House zealots? Don't take them too seriously either, Mailer counseled. "Jesus is half their soul," he said. "Evel Knievel is their other half. An average American with a deep Christian faith is but an oxymoron."
With that, a round of thankful amens and a more leisurely approach to dessert.
ON A RECENT TUESDAY AFTERNOON, heading out of downtown on the Red Line, I noticed a raggedy-looking passenger with a backpack and an acoustic guitar. Once the train got under way, he began strumming and swaying and rasping out Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." He looked like a muskrat, bearded and shaggy with hacked-off hair, an Ace bandage wrapped around his right wrist, and one lens of his thick glasses held in place by Scotch tape. But he sounded okay, and before long several people around me were fishing in their pockets for quarters.
It wasn't until his second number, "Yesterday" by the Beatles, that I noticed something curious in his method. He ended his songs when the train stopped, waiting in silence as passengers got off and on, and resumed only when the train was again rolling. And he kept moving, first from one end of our car to the other, and then, around the time we reached Vermont Avenue, off the train and back on the next car. It made no sense; if someone was going to drop a dime in his hat for a song, they'd probably pay more for a whole set. I was intrigued. I followed him to the next car.