Thu December 1, 2011
Not Quite Norman: Living Up To A Literary Legacy
Alex Gilvarry is the author of the forthcoming novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.
Ah, the writers colony. A place where solitude is sacred, and writing is prime. Nature, peace and quiet, drinking, casual sex, a respectable meal plan—to me, this is what the very word "colony" promises. My first experience at such a place was at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Unlike the more established colonies — Yaddo, Macdowell — the Mailer colony offered something additionally enticing: Work where he worked. Live where he lived. Suffer how he suffered.
I was midway through my "prison novel," as I referred to it because of its setting and how it made me feel (imprisoned). A month at the Mailer colony would do me some good. I could learn how to live like a career writer, if only by Mailer's example.
I did have some reservations. Since Mailer had been called one of the "most transparently competitive writers of his generation," I was dreading any competition I would feel among the other writers at the colony. As far back as I can remember, I've hated competing. When I was a kid on Staten Island, my mother would send me off to day camp where I would train for hours in various athletics. It was there, competing, that I discovered my unwillingness to take my shirt off during "lap time" in the pool, my inability to throw a baseball on target, and my assuredness to always come in dead last.
Mailer's home was a brick three-story house with bay frontage. Adorning the walls inside were pictures of the literary giant in his various guises: a boxer leaning against the ropes, the older, somber Mailer in fighting a New England gust in his windbreaker. His writing room was exactly as he left it, and it had all the signs of a top competitor. There were rivets in the floor where his chair had worn down the wood from so many hours seated in battle. Dumbbells and a weight machine with pulley to train his body so that it would be in synch with his taut mind. A small bed for power naps.
I took to the school of Mailer, reading him by night, imitating his work habits by day. But as I built up some stamina for the days ahead, I suddenly found myself in a competition. Not with my fellow writers, but with the giant Mailer legacy that surrounded me.
Each morning, I wrote with the dirty little secret to leave Mailer in my dust, to be better than him, maybe for all the childhood memories where I endured defeat at the hands of children more athletically coordinated. And one night, my own ambition took me to a place that tested my limits. I was alone, and in his kitchen I made one of Mailer's signature cocktails, an equal mixture of red wine and orange juice. As I swilled the one-part Shiraz and one-part OJ in my mouth, I could barely hold it down. The contrast of the beverage's two ingredients sobered me enough to take a good look at myself.
Living like him was exasperating.
I gave up the race before my time at the colony was through. I couldn't beat Mailer. Indeed, when Mailer passed, he seemed to take an entire tradition with him. That's how big a giant I was dealing with.