The Deer Park, Norman Mailer, Putnam, New York, 1955
At one time, like in the case of Ernest Hemingway, I tried to get my hands on everything that Norman Mailer wrote. In his prime he held out promise to match Brother Hemingway as the preeminent 20th century male American prose writer. Mailer certainly has the ambition, ego and skill to do so. In his inevitable search to write the great American novel, at least for his generation, I do not believe, however that he was successful. The Deer Park is an early attempt to tackle that task and while there are flashes of brilliance there is too much self-consciousness about making a great American novel on Mailer’s part and that gets reflected in the tinniness of his characters, male and female, to break away from a fairly ordinary look at a slice of the American pie, the Hollywood bright lights and back streets side.
Certainly the subject matter of the novel is an almost surefire way to get attention. Put Hollywood in exile in the desert, wayward movie stars, starlets and wannabes, and a male lead who is not sure what he wants to be but is sure that the stars shine for him somewhere and you have the makings of a great American novel. Throw in, almost obligatory for a ‘fifties’ novel and for a self-described leftist like Mailer , the tensions surrounding the ‘red scare’, Hollywood- style, and the cultural clamp down that shameful blacklist episode imposed and one should be onto something. But, strangely, Mailer gets bogged down in the sexual escapades of the main characters and never gets to the heart of the real question that the novel poses- How the hell does one safeguard his or her creative expression without selling out to every conceivable pressure that comes along. It did not work, but nice try Norman.