Crime and Puzzlement: the Real-Life Mystery Behind Norman Mailer's New Thriller
That pugnacious champ of American letters, Norman Mailer, has written provocatively about subjects as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and Vietnam. But he never tried a mystery—until he found himself enmeshed in one. Last year, as John De Lorean awaited trial, Mailer learned that he, too, had been the target of a government attempt at entrapment. “It created an amoral climate,” says Mailer. “It was a great part of an impetus to write a mystery novel.” So last summer he sat down to produce Tough Guys Don’t Dance (Random House, $16.95). Now, as Mailer’s multi-layered psychological thriller climbs its way up the best-seller charts, its author faces the prospect of testifying in a drug trial that starts September 18.
Mailer’s personal drama began in December 1982, when an old friend, Bernard (“Buzz”) Farbar, invited Norman to lunch. A Dartmouth-educated magazine and book editor, Farbar hung around in the same publishing circles as Mailer. What Mailer didn’t know at the time was that Farbar, 48, had been arrested after buying one kilogram of a harmless white powder he thought was cocaine; the seller turned out to be a federal agent.
The reason for this sting operation, according to an affidavit filed by Ivan Fisher, Farbar’s lawyer, was that the feds wanted to use Farbar to implicate Mailer. “Sometime in 1982 the government began a witch-hunt to get Norman Mailer,” the affidavit reads. “In its investigation of Richard Stratton [another Mailer friend, who has been convicted of importing hashish], the Drug Enforcement Agency evidently reached a belief that Mailer was involved in the hashish transaction as an investor.” The government also believes, says Fisher, that Farbar was working for Stratton as his “lieutenant,” and has charged him with three counts of dealing in hashish.
In the attempt to entrap Mailer, federal agents allegedly offered Farbar a deal: “If they ‘got’ Mailer over a taped lunch,” says Fisher, “they would do something wonderful for Buzz, the bottom line of which was that he wouldn’t have gone to jail.”
The first part of the plan worked. Terrified at the notion of a prison sentence, Farbar agreed to meet Mailer at Armando’s, an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. As Norman chomped his favorite veal parmigiana and spaghetti al burro, Farbar kept trying to bring up the Stratton case. Mailer bristled: “Look, I don’t have anything to do with any of these guys, and I don’t want to hear nothing about it.” (“Hoodsmanship,” Mailer now jokes of his intentional bad grammar.)
The feds were furious at their failure to implicate Mailer. “All talk of keeping Buzz out of jail went away,” says Fisher. Later Mailer learned of the abortive sting and was outraged, though not at his friend. “There was a squeeze on Buzz of a horrendous sort,” says Mailer. “He was trying to protect his family. If I’d been in the same situation, what would I have done? I simply don’t know, so why sit in judgment?”
Nor does Mailer know how his name got bandied about in drug circles, but he offers a guess: “If someone is trying to climb in New York, they might say, ‘By the way, I had lunch with Meryl Streep yesterday.’ I figure some dealer was throwing my name around in an attempt to impress people with his clients. The feds must have heard it on somebody’s wiretap. You could smell their lust from here to Laos.”
In the face of all this Mailer, 61, remains calm. “As you get older,” he muses, “you get a sense that some you win and some you lose—rather than that each victory is transcendental and each defeat terminal.” Does this mean that the old feisty Norman has finally mellowed? “Mellowed?” he asks, his baby-blue eyes cool and steady. “I’m as mellow as a piece of Camembert.”
So it seems. The day after a federal judge announced the date of his friend Buzz’s trial, the unflappable Norman was blithely leading a picnic expedition across the boulders and sands of his beloved Provincetown, the hook of land at the tip of Cape Cod. Mailer has journeyed there from his Brooklyn Heights home on and off for 30 summers, and has written “bits and pieces” of all his books in Province-town. Tough Guys Don’t Dance, in fact, is set against a lyrically evoked backdrop of Provincetown’s dunes and marshes and saltbox homes.
Norman recently bought a waterfront house in Provincetown after years of renting and has settled in with his sixth wife, artist Norris Church Mailer, 35. His peripatetic brood of eight children drifts in and out like the tide, and Mailer is obviously delighted to play proud paterfamilias. “All of those stories,” says Norris, referring to tales of her spouse’s notorious bellicosity in years past, “are about someone else. I don’t know that person.”
His kids, too, appear to dote on him and appreciate his success at keeping harmony among offspring born to six different mothers. “There’s been domestic conflict over the years,” says his eldest son, Michael, 20, who will be a sophomore at Harvard this fall, “but no deep strife. My father gets into bad moods sometimes, but it’s usually because someone has eaten what he wanted in the refrigerator or he got a bad review.”
When the Tough Guys reviews came out (see Picks & Pans, p. 18), the family was surely pleased. Unlike Mailer’s last opus, Ancient Evenings, a 709-page doorstop about reincarnation, necrophilia and sodomy on the banks of the Nile, Tough Guys has sparked relatively few barbs. To be sure, the Vogue reviewer protested that Mailer’s macho portrayal of man’s sexual rapacious-ness would make a woman “tranquilly endure a period of chastity,” but Norman is not contrite. “That’s how men think,” he insists. “They want to possess a French countess or Miss America.”
Readers who agree with the Mailerian view will be delighted to learn that he feels he has so far said “only half of what I’d like to say.” He is now pondering his next creation. “It’s like a promising affair,” he says of this span between books. “Anything is possible.” Superstitious about discussing his writing, he confides only that he is now considering two novels as part of his four-book, $3 million-plus deal with Random House.
The thought of sitting down to a major project after the whimsy of Tough Guys (which he knocked off in 60 days) sobers him. “To write a great book, you can kill yourself,” Mailer says. “Sitting in a chair all day and squeezing your insides to come up with a few new words is not the healthiest prospect.”
But fear not. He’ll press on. “People think they’ve found a way of dismissing me, but like the mad butler, I’ll be back serving the meal,” Norman promises. And for dessert, he’ll whip up some new concoctions. “You can’t hold on to the old, or you start dying,” explains Mailer. He intends to become more active in the literary community, having just accepted the presidency of PEN, the organization devoted to promoting interchange among writers around the world. Norman also wouldn’t mind adding to the acting credits he established as the architect Stanford White in Ragtime. “I’d like to play some kind of godfather…Jewish or Italian. I think I could do it. Ask any of my kids.”
One role Mailer has little interest in is that of politician. Though he ran in a much publicized race for mayor of New York in 1969, he is now content to fling opinions from the sidelines. “I was irritated early on at the emphasis on having a woman for Vice-President,” he says. “Why a woman? Why not a kangaroo? It implied there was something inferior about women.” He adds, moreover, to no one’s surprise, that he is not partial to feminists: “Women’s lib comes across in the media as a shrill gang of harpies.” Yet now that Geraldine Ferraro is on the ticket, Mailer is pleased. “My God, she gave life to the Democratic Party.”
The outspoken Mailer is even more passionate on matters closer to home. Given his own brush with entrapment, he watched the De Lorean case with intense interest. “He was in it up to his neck, but I was surprised and pleased at the verdict,” he says. “What has always fascinated me about the interplay between cops and crooks is that they are so much alike. Many a cop is wearing the uniform to protect himself from himself. For that reason, entrapment pollutes the waters. It’s vile.”
What is especially reprehensible, Mailer feels, “is when the government tries to get a man to entrap his friend.” So when the Buzz Farbar trial begins this month, he will testify, if asked. “Buzz is my friend,” says the author, with the compassion that comes with age, experience and, just maybe, a sweeter inner nature than his public posturing suggests. “I don’t want to see him in jail.” Besides, he adds, reflecting on his emergence as a dashing Hammett, “It kinda establishes my credentials.”