THE SPOOKY ART is classic Mailer, meaning, if you take what he says with a grain of salt you’ll have a great time reading this book. He veers from cockiness to humility, from misogyny to pride, regret, bitterness, and nearly incomprehensible mysticism, all the while ragging on journalists, poets, and his fellow writers. He’s also critical of his own work. The prevailing mood, in fact, of this book is regretful: Mailer believes his generation failed to produce a great novel that defined America. There are favorable mentions of Steinbeck, Faulkner, Roth, and Updike (he’s not so sure about Hemingway), but where was that big novel that would be the final say on what it was like to be an American after WW2? It wasn’t HARLOT’S GHOST or ANCIENT EVENINGS, Mailer’s own biggest books, both of which he believes came out at the wrong time and were unjustly overlooked. It wasn’t THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG or ARMIES OF THE NIGHT either, the books that won him two Pulitzers, which were journalistic efforts and, he claims, easier to write than true fiction. He admits he had a hard time finding the story in his novels and wasted too much time on writing journalism instead. He also regrets debasing himself in the media, the lowest form of entertainment. His “wild man” persona, he claims, was only “5 to 10 percent” of him, the rest was work. Still, this persona looms large in the public’s mind.
I enjoyed the first part of this book the best. Mailer writes about the success of his first novel, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, and how he struggled with his next two books. The remainder of THE SPOOKY ART consists mostly of old interviews, articles, forewords, reviews, and speeches he’s given, patched together into a disjointed, bewildering, and increasingly bitter narrative. In the penultimate chapter, Mailer briefly discusses a dozen or so writers (including Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Franzen), finding fault with all of them.
Mailer warns that this is not a how-to guide on writing. It certainly isn’t a how-to guide on making friends in the writing business either. But then Mailer was a rabble-rouser, in his writing as much as in the media. Of his last book published during his lifetime, A CASTLE IN THE FOREST, he predicted people would be “livid,” and he was looking forward to the storm it would create.
In THE SPOOKY ART Mailer knows his best work is behind him. He predicts that some day a writer will appear who will be better than everyone who’s gone before him and who will write that elusive Great American Novel. Based on Mailer’s low opinion of other writers in general, he probably believes this person to be himself, reincarnated by way of the Egyptian ritual he describes so vividly in what he considered his magnum opus, ANCIENT EVENINGS.