Barbary Shore, Norman Mailer, Vintage International, New York, 1997
As I recently noted in this space while reviewing Norman Mailer's The Presidential Papers and Miami and the Siege of Chicago at one time, as with Ernest Hemingway, I tried to get my hands on everything that the late author wrote. In his prime Mailer held out promise to match Hemingway as the preeminent male American prose writer of the 20th century. Mailer certainly has the ambition, ego and skill to do so. Although he wrote several good novels, like The Deer Park, in his time I believe that his journalistic work, as he himself might have partially admitted, especially his political, social and philosophical musings are what will insure his place in the literary pantheon. The early novel Barbary Shore under review here only confirms that estimation of his proper place. This is not a Mailer gem.
This novel was written shortly after Mailer’s huge success with the Naked and the Dead and seemingly shared the fate of many second novels- failure to live up to expectations. Not, however, for the reasons one might think. Yes, the plot is a little contrived in building up the tensions between fellow New York rooming house lodgers, including the narrator, a wounded war veteran trying to scratch out an existence as a writer, who seem to have no existent except to act as foils for each other. Yes, the dialogue is a little forced as each character has to be just a little more arch and a little more tragic that the others. Moreover, the action is virtually nonexistent as the rooming house acts as a metaphor turning on itself here.
However none of these reasons are what causes the novel to fail. The politics, or more properly the confused philosophy, underlying the novel are too big to survive in the space allotted. The characters here, including a repentant Stalinist, a dogged governmental Red hunter and a thwarted socialist idealist are symbols for the very real struggle in Mailer’s head, and in those of other Western intellectuals in the post- World War II period as well, to make sense of the contradiction between the promise of old socialist vision and the way it was being played out under Stalinist tutelage. The historic socialist struggle between Stalin and Trotsky that dominated the first half of the 20th century, American version here, as played by the denizens of a New York rooming house cannot be contained in such a milieu.
Moreover, the existentialist philosophy, with a twist of Kafka, that essentially reduces social action to the unmediated acts of individuals that would dominant much of Mailer’s later writing gets its first tentative workout here as the pressure of the ‘Red Scare’ McCarthy era and the flight from seeking socialist solutions began to have its effect on the New York intelligentsia in the early 1950’s. Nevertheless it is still worthwhile to read something that is thoughtfully, if not successfully, written, as is almost always the case with Mailer. And that is really the place where Mailer finds his comradeship with Hemingway.