Norman Mailer walked slowly from the back of the Writers Guild Theater using two canes, his knees as brittle as cookies, his body matronly and small, his brow furrowed, both of his tremendous ears containing hearing aids, his eyes as fierce as little knives.

Applause followed him the full length of the room and up to the stage before it stopped abruptly, as if everyone in the crowd assumed simultaneously that the noise might disrupt his concentration just enough to send him toppling off the stairs. Squeaky thuds from the rubber tips of his canes hoisted him uneasily into the glare of a C-SPAN crew’s lights, and he collapsed into his chair as David Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times, sat down opposite him.

(Illustration by Mr. Fish)

The topic this time around would be Mailer’s new novel about Adolf Hitler’s adolescence, The Castle in the Forest. While Writers Bloc host Andrea Grossman introduced him, a glass of red wine was delivered surreptitiously to the author and placed behind a short vase of flowers on the small table next to him. Mailer was then handed an immense microphone that he held in his lap like a dead flashlight and waited for the interview to begin. A palpable anxiety settled over the audience as if we were about to witness the slow, agonizing death of a once magnificent bull.

Was this the same Norman Mailer who once referred to Jesus Christ as a whining Jew bastard? The same man who got drunk and head-butted Gore Vidal prior to taping the very same Dick Cavett Show on which he told Janet Flanner, 70-year-old Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, that there was another way of entering a woman besides the traditional way? In every house or apartment I occupied, I taped a particular Mailer quote to the wall over my writing desk, his response to the question, What is the role of the artist in our society?: “I think it is to be as disturbing, as adventurous, as penetrating as his energy and courage make possible.”

The man I now saw seated on the stage in front of me looked like Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show, as unlikely a person to have stabbed his wife with a steak knife as a puff pastry was to have buggered a puppy.

But then he spoke, and all that changed.

In reference to a passage in The Castle in the Forest — a description of an indispensable source of great insight for Satan into the recruitability of men — Ulin asked if being something of a devil might also make a good writer.

“At the very least, it helps,” said Mailer, his smile a delicious acknowledgment of his own fiendish past as America’s preeminent bad boy of arts and letters. As if they’d just seen a magic trick that was the reverse version of a stranger being sawed in half, namely the reassembling of a great cultural hero right before their eyes, everyone in the audience exploded with happy relief. It was a Willy Wonka moment that one might go through his whole life wishing to experience.

Moments later, Ulin asked if writing about Hitler’s childhood years was a treacherous exercise given the innocence of youth and the potentially destructive notion that the future Führer might be portrayed as a sympathetic character. Mailer acknowledged the risk of such a portrayal, but decided to brave the danger in pursuit of a deeper understanding of how the concept of good and evil manifests itself among men.

“During the Middle Ages, people had no personal power,” he said. “They believed that their fate was determined by God or the devil. After the Middle Ages, human beings began asking, ‘What can I do for myself? What do I want?’”

Mailer then went on to describe the third army that emerged from such an enlightenment. No longer was a person’s soul considered merely the ultimate possession of whichever supernatural extreme of light and dark that first pried loose from humanity’s tenuous grip, but suddenly the ownership of the human soul became an option for the human being himself.

“The battlefield for such a three-way struggle became very interesting to me,” he said, adding that Castle is less about the incestuous buffoonery and domestic violence that produced the terrible monster that was Hitler, as many critics have misread it to be, than it is about the competing moral structures championed by God, Beelzebub and Joe Schmo, each code of behavior little more noble than a gross expression of narcissistic self-obsession designed to have totalitarian aspirations.

Was there, then, no such thing as morality beyond one’s subjective concept of right and wrong? Mailer made sure that we all left the theater uncertain of the answer, reminding us that there is a real danger in feeling an excessive responsibility to convince the universe that any of us knows for sure and has a right to say so.

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