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'Art' gives intriguing peeks into Mailer's mind

THE SPOOKY ART: SOME THOUGHTS ON WRITING, by Norman Mailer, Random House, 330 pages, $24.95.

"The Spooky Art" is Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Norman Mailer's 32nd book, planned to correspond with his 80th birthday. Unfortunately, it is badly dated, because Mailer has collected things he has said about writing from numerous sources, spanning many years, including many interviews of himself by others.

In other words, a seasoned Mailer didn't sit down and write a new book about writing based on his long, impressive career. As a result, the book reads like a scissors-and-paste job, making it possible for Mailer to disagree with himself, which he does frequently.

That doesn't mean the book isn't interesting. In many places it is fascinating. After all, Mailer is Mailer, and he comments in some detail in these pages about the approach and the problems he had writing his various books.

In doing so, he writes with both color and verbosity. He is occasionally self-deprecating, and he is occasionally puffed up with pride. Many times, what he says has nothing whatever to do with writing. Of course, even that is acceptable, because most readers would probably want any glimpse they could possibly get into the man's brain.

He exhibits considerable anger, particularly toward critics who do "superficial book reviewing," and sometimes "serious literary criticism" that is "close to merciless." Not surprisingly, he considers critics to be lesser human beings — and he has absolute disdain for journalists and newspapers.

Mailer is at his best when discussing the style of writing, even though he puts little stock in craft: "Writing is spooky. There is no routine of an office to keep you going, only the blank page each morning, and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words. . . . Novels go happiest when you discover something you did not know you knew: an insight into one of your more opaque characters, a metaphor that startles you even as you are setting it down. . . . "

Mailer praises at length the highly controversial film "Last Tango in Paris" (1972), starring Marlon Brando. Whether or not that film was obscene, Mailer's discussion of it is. The book would have been infinitely better without it.

Finally, Mailer reviews great writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Capote, Heller, Vonnegut, Dreiser, Bellow and a host of others. He finds things to like about most but finds at least an equal number of things to dislike, including things about writers he has not read or has barely read.

Mailer reserves some of his final words for recent novelist Jonathan Franzen, whose book, "The Corrections," won the National Book Award last year. Franzen, says Mailer, "may well have the highest IQ of any American novelist writing today, but, unhappily, he rewards us with more work than exhilaration, since rare is any page in 'The Corrections' that could not be five to 10 lines shorter."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com