Tough Guys Don’t Dance


My Literary Hero

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.

D. said he had only been in a classroom full of writers once or twice before. He didn’t teach. Never had. He just wrote novels, and he’d been doing so quite well for forty years. I knew I was in the presence of a great artist not only because of the novels I had become enamored with, but by the way he spoke about his sentences, with a certain degree of spirituality. To him, words were like mysterious objects that lined up in an order based on syllable and beat, sight, sound, and meaning. It was our job as writers to figure out that order.

During D.’s lecture, he and I spoke across the room about Max Frisch, who we were both reading at the time. We discussed Man in the Holocene and Montauk, and I grew confident that I would have enough material for a good chat when I went up to get my book signed. And then, when the time was right, I would ask him for a picture. Yes, I had come to class that night with the intention of getting a picture. And not just any picture. I wanted one with my arm around him, and his arm around me, like we were old buddies.

Broaching the subject was easy. “Would you mind?” I asked, brandishing my camera. “It would mean a great deal.” He didn’t immediately say yes, but instead began fidgeting in his plastic chair. His eyes darted from side to side as though looking for an exit. I could feel myself falling out of favor. I was no longer a writer or a student of the craft; I was a sycophant, a brownnoser, an amateur. I was a kid with a camera. Of course he didn’t want to take a picture with me.

To save face, I suggested we take a picture together with my two teachers, so the four of us lined up, with D. and I on opposite ends.

At first it started as a joke. I was going to Photoshop my teachers out of the picture so that it was just me and D. I thought it would be funny, something to show my classmates. I even asked a photographer friend if he would do it for me.

“It took some cropping,” he said. “But luckily your arm was around the other guy precisely where we needed it to be.”

“Great,” I said. “It looks real.” So real, in fact, that part of me would forget there had been two men standing between us.

The next time I saw D. was a few months later, at the Norman Mailer colony in Provincetown, where I was living for the summer. I was nervous that he wouldn’t remember me, or, worse, that he would remember me as the guy who forced him to take that stupid picture. But that wasn’t the case. “Of course I remember,” he said. “The tall guy at the end of the long table.”

We sat in Mailer’s living room with the other writers at the colony, and D. told us a story about the first time he met Mailer, a writer he had idolized in his youth. They were both attending a literary event at a Manhattan theater. D. stepped out to get some air, and there was Mailer leaning against the balustrade, smoking a cigarette. D. introduced himself, and, wanting to make an impression, began talking about a new book he was working on about Lee Harvey Oswald. This was very unlike D.; he rarely told anyone what he was writing about before it was finished. In response, Mailer abruptly stubbed out his smoke and said, “Let’s go back inside.” Little did D. know, Mailer was at work on a very similar book, what would become Oswald’s Tale.

I felt better after hearing that story. It placed D. in a context I could understand. I could see him as a younger, eager writer, trying to swim in the same pool I was drowning in.

I kept the photo taped above my writing desk in my little room at the colony, but it never brought the inspiration I thought it would. When I left, I packed it away in the pages of D.’s first novel, and that’s where I keep it still.

When it comes to meeting your hero, you can’t shut off the obsessed fan inside. I’ve seen D. since, and my admiration for him is still there, along with the desire to impress and to be remembered. But part of me knows we can never really be friends; he will likely never read a word I write, and I’ve accepted that. I do, however, return to his books, and that relationship—perhaps the more important one—remains strong.

Alex Gilvarry is the editor of Tottenville Review and the author of a novel forthcoming from Viking.