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Tough Guys Don’t Dance

November 30, 2010 | by

Norman Mailer in 1949. Photograph by John H. Popper.

Why can’t we keep our literary heroes where they belong, at the top of the bookshelf next to all the others? And why must we ache for their approval, their admiration, their love?

I can’t help but think of an anecdote about Norman Mailer, who was provoked one day to reach out to his hero, big Papa himself. Mailer had just completed The Deer Park and sent off a copy inscribed

To Ernest Hemingway:

—because finally after all these years I am deeply curious to know what you think …

—but if you do not answer, or if you answer with the kind of crap you use to answer unprofessional writers, sycophants, brown-nosers, etc. then fuck you …

Norman Mailer

The book came back to Mailer unopened, stamped “Address Unknown—Return to Sender,” in Spanish. (See Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself for a complete telling in hard-earned italics.)

I have my own relationship with one of my heroes, and the mere fact that I call it a “relationship” is in itself deeply sick. I’m veiling a juvenile obsession, hiding behind the very word: hero. In truth, this relationship consists of a few encounters, some good, some bad, the first of which happened one night at Hunter College when I was an M.F.A. student.

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