Book Review: An American Dream by Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer writes like a demon possessed. His words spew forth so quickly and with such putrid detail as to have the reader’s pulse racing through every turn of the page. He does this with great success in An American Dream, a fiction novel published in 1965. His character, Stephen Rojack is perhaps semi autobiographical and prophetic for he is what Mailer himself became. No he did not kill his wife (one of six), but he did apparently stab one with a penknife at a party.

Rojack is a war hero, a political player and a TV persona. He is as controversial as Mailer himself would become through the years. He is married to a true blue blood socialite who he sees as his tormentor and torturer. She speaks in vulgar terms and enjoys mocking her estranged husband. That is until he strangles her in a fit of suicidal and psychotic rage. He does this he claims as a means to save his soul.

Is Rojack the typical protagonist? The tragic hero in a Greek myth? Or is he simply a man dealing with his ever present spiritual quest to bridge the gap between good and evil? He is at once a murdering philanderer and yet he pales in comparison to the characters he encounters through the narrative. Every one he comes into contact with starting with the Police investigating his wife’s “suicide” to the climactic meeting with his father-in-law seems to shirk all societal mores and the stories they share portray the most vile acts and unspeakable crimes. In this company of characters he never feels at ease and does a great deal of listening, yet he does not judge them all harshly. Perhaps in every page he is expecting to be discovered as the murderer, but each character seems to have only their own agenda’s and almost accept his guilt yet are preoccupied with their own motives.

After reading The Executioner’s song, I developed a tremendous respect for Mailer for his journalistic acumen as well as his aggressive story telling. The American Dream felt more like reading Henry Miller, or Charles Bukowski. The comparison is in the rapid stream of consciousness style Rojack describes his inner thoughts. They are filled with descriptive depravities in areas of sexuality, alcoholism and sanity. It is quite clear that Rojack is on a quest to regain or perhaps maintain any bit of sanity he may have left after he commits his ultimate crime. He is also a raging alcoholic which seems to attribute to his almost dreamlike state throughout the novel.

Mailer makes the reader question morality with his own signature style, by presenting the characters as human on the outside, and completely unfathomable on the inside. There is a wish for a redeeming character or act, yet Mailer withholds that gratification with slippery ease. He does not judge too harshly, perhaps because he knows he is a sinner and a saint just like the rest. Thus, he challenges the reader to do the same by presenting all manner of depravity and socially abhorrent scenarios, testing the reader’s capacity to see beyond the obvious. This novel was first published to a controversial reception, yet Mailer probably would not have it any other way.

Copyright ©2007 Veronica Romm

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: An American Dream by Norman Mailer

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  2. Tom Wolfe, I remember, was not a fan of the novel, suggesting that Mailer “lards up” his prose with too many allusions, metaphors and similes when he ought to have taken a hint from James M.Cain and fashioned a terser, blunter style. He used Mailer’s running metaphor of boxing and compared him to a fighter who needed to get out of his corner faster. I differ with Wolfe’s conclusions and tend to agree with the late critic Richard Poirier’s reading of the novel, which considered “An American Dream” a compelling delirium of language styles fused together , the elegant, the surreal, the jazzy and slang-infested, the terse and the verbose, in a spectacular , intoxicating sweep. The point of the novel was to reveal Stephen Rozack’s festering self-doubt dispite his nominal accomplishments as both war hero and media figure, and his deranged attempts to save what he considers his soul. Mailer’s novel is a the interior view of a breakdown,an interiorized version of Lear’s final speech. His results are spectacular.


  3. I just now finished An American Dream. I must say it was Mailer at his finest. This was a tour de force through the dark side of the human condition. This book was simply breathtaking in its pace and impact.


  4. Tom Wolfe wrote an interesting piece in the mid-1960s about the writing of “An American Dream,” which was serialized monthly in 1963-64 by Esquire Magazine. Wolfe definitely believes Mailer was channeling Doestoevsky.


  5. Thanks for this review…been searching for those who have read it so it could be discussed. I felt that the style of writing was distinctively Doestoevskyian. What do you think? This is my first Mailer novel…appreciate it for its style but can’t say that i am a fan. Felt that the magic kind of dipped after the first chapter. Learned that he wrote this in parts for a column…


  6. Definitely had me rummaging through neglected desk drawers seeking an almost forgotten library card. I love assholes…asshole authors are even more alluring.


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