There was a good discussion this past week over at She Writes Press and with Brooke Warner, who teaches memoir writing and also does a blog with the Huffington Post. Brooke Warner asked about people who’d been discouraged to write their memoir due to crude generalizations from a mostly male run literary world and public perceptions that the substance in these memoirs was sub-standard, making the product impossible to sell and the writing process a waste of time. Truth is, memoirs are the factual window into a world that fiction sketches out.
Having said that, The Last Party is a memoir that only reinforces negative conceptions of memoirs. This is the second book I’ve read this year on the life of Norman Mailer, (check out my earlier post, Mornings With Mailer) and one of the most dishonest memoirs I’ve ever read. It isn’t dishonest for what it said but how it was said.
I really expected this book to have more depth to it considering the pivotal moment Adele played in Norman Mailer’s life and the literary world. Norman Mailer is one America’s greatest novelists of the 20th/21st centuries. A couple Pulitzer’s, a couple National Book Awards, go to cement that legacy. But everyone knows that in spite of great intellect that he possessed a dark side which many have tried to explore and explain.
I will recap for those who may not know. Mailer, famous for his book The Naked And The Dead at the time, (his best work was still to come), ran for Mayor of NYC at the start of the 1960s and on election eve, after a drunken brawl, stabbed Adele, nearly killing her. Adele helped get him off from serious charges and he ended up only receiving a 5 year probationary sentence.
A weird thing about post-WW2 authors- I don’t think it was there on the level before the war so I often wonder if the war didn’t do something to the general psyche at the time – is that their treatment and views of women was really disgraceful. They seem, to me anyway, to really differ from those writers between the wars in that respect. Could be I don’t know enough about the earlier writers, and true, some of it was societal, but there is a common thread there that needs exploring.
Having been stabbed by Mailer, I did expect an element of revenge in this book. What I didn’t expect was revenge to be the theme. Sure, there were plenty of revelations, mostly unpleasant, about Norman Mailer that I didn’t know. I was surprised by his bi-sexual tendencies, his reliance on drugs during the writing process, and how undisciplined his life was when his writing regime was stringent.
I said this book was dishonest. For every transgression Norman made, Adele matched him, often even did him one better. Yet, while Adele rips into Norman’s behavior, turning him into a deviant troll at times, she only dismisses her actions by saying she was an alcoholic or used too many drugs as though that was all the explanation required. It seemed like on every page it was, ‘I’d been an angel if it wasn’t for the alcohol, drugs, and that devil Norman’. Nowhere in this book does she talk of her life plans or seize responsibility for the chaos in her life, even in retrospect.
The reason for that may be because she had a bit of gold digger streak in her. She slept with several famous people, and it is clear from the book it was always from the perspective of ‘where can this person take me’ and never from a standpoint of love. She claims she was an accomplished painter but nowhere does she discuss her artistic ambitions. Maybe she is a good painter, I don’t know. Bottom line, her only claim to fame is she was married to Norman Mailer and it didn’t take her where she expected.
Now, I don’t begrudge a person for hooking up with someone for other reasons than love. Let’s be realistic here, it happens all the time. It would be great if it didn’t but that isn’t the world we live in and sometimes, it doesn’t even seem to be a choice as much as something that unfolds in life without realization.
However, acknowledge that is what going on and don’t be so bitter, as this book is, when you don’t receive the crown you expected. This book was written with such a poison pen that at times I felt I was reading about the characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf with Norman and Adele cast as the Burton/Taylor characters. There was nothing likeable about hanging out with either one and I was glad to get to the last page.
Like I said, this book lacked total depth. You won’t find anything about Norman’s writing in here. You won’t find anything about Adele in here other than how she despised Norman. Some of the most interesting parts of the book were the descriptions of other people at their parties or how New York was in those days.
This book is an easy read. Unfortunately, it is an example of all the bad things people say about memoirs. There are so many good memoirs out there that unless you wish to know more about Norman like I did, skip this one. Find yourself a good memoir from She Writes that will benefit you. Life is too short to waste on a couple of drunks, who despised each other so much they literally wanted to commit murder.