NORMAN MAILER’S novel WHY ARE WE IN VIETNAM? (Putnam, $4.95) is fierce, funny, and tightly organized. Perhaps as a result of turning The Deer Park into a play, Mr. Mailer has learned to build his sermon into the plot instead of goofing off periodically into the pulpit. The book also contains, I believe, a percentage of dirty words unequaled except on certain washroom walls. Mr. Mailer has reason for these words. His firstperson narrator, a youth who calls himself DJ (for Disc Jockey to the Universe) is “a humdinger of a latent homosexual highly over-heterosexual with onanistic narcissistic and sodomistic overtones, a choir task force of libidinal cross-hybrided vectors.” This is DJ’s malicious and imaginary version of diagnosis by his mother’s psychiatrist. His real trouble is rather more simple. With a discreetly lecherous mother from Norleens and a status-grabbing father from Tex-ass, DJ sees the world organized by his elders as a mixture of (let us stick to civil euphemism) sex and sewage. His vocabulary is limited by this view, but within its limits, precise and consistent. It is also repetitious, and what Mr. Mailer accomplishes by the repetition is unusual. First comes the inevitable disappearance of any meaning at all from these overworked words. Then they acquire a new meaning, or at least a new authority, as Mr. Mailer’s persistent hammering at them compels the reader to accept DJ’s vocabulary as the articulation of normal, accepted reality. The book’s style in other respects is a wickedly clever parody of Salinger, Burroughs, and Barth, full of puns, ironic scholarship, bits of old jokes, learned paraphrase, burlesque scientific jargon, juvenile slang, and slapstick Texas dialect. The whole compilation is a mockery of the current tendency among critics to count intricacy of style as intrinsically meritorious. (Actually intricacy is meritorious, from the critic’s point of view; it proves that the author has really been working hard, which gives the critic one solid point to take a bearing on.)
The literary spoof is merely titivation, however. Mr. Mailer’s real target is American society, which DJ sees as a constant struggle for what his father would call success, meaning face, meaning the right to kick an inferior and get away with it: a right to be won by any means available and subsequently described by the winner as the result of disinterested and heroic action. Specifically, DJ and father go hunting in Alaska, accompanied by DJ’s friend Tex and two of father’s flunkies, one of whom lugs along a cannon fit to stop a charging rhino at ten feet. He can hardly hit a mountain with the thing, but technically he has outgunned the boss, a social error that casts general murrain. Father, soured by the firepower question, nags the guide unreasonably about grizzly. The guide, a distinguished old D. Boone type, judges correctly that what this crowd wants is not sport but loot. He contemptuously helicopters them all around the Brooks Range, rings them with bodyguards, and silently packs up and flies out the slaughtered beasts. The dead animals are real, but the rest of the affair is a fraud — cheap thrill, safe danger, makebelieve courage, results guaranteed or your money back. By the end of it, the two boys have resigned from the system. Vietnam is not mentioned until the last page of the book, and Mr. Mailer could have made his point without ever mentioning it at all.
Rather belatedly come two good books about last November’s flood in Florence. A DIARY OF FLORENCE IN FLOOD (Simon and Schuster, $4.50) by KATHERINE KRESSMAN TAYLOR and FLORENCE: THE DAYS OF THE FLOOD (Stein and Day, $4.95) by FRANCO NENCINI. Miss Taylor’s book is a personal account, emotional, vivid, full of individuals, sharp details, and small specific incidents. Mr. Nencini’s is a general report by a professional journalist, tracing causes, following official action and inaction, and debating possible remedies. It is heavily illustrated and includes antique accounts of previous floods. The two volumes complement each other neatly.
Our present judicial serenity about openly published obscenity has raised an effect one would hardly expect from a trivial outburst of lenity: the appearance, to wit, of collected limericks, one lot selected by N. DOUGLAS, whose jape was a fake-earnest ape of scholarship. Long well-protected beneath counters, his midget anthology SOME LIMERICKS (Grove, no apology, $4.00) provides comic footnotes, besides exudations of witless scatology. WILLIAM S. BARING-GOULD has compiled THE LURE OF THE LIMERICK, styled (Clarkson Potter, $5.00) distinctly for scholars whose tastes are austerely defiled. Now a limerick of an ambition is created for vocal rendition. What these books have begun will, in time, cut the fun out of oral erotic tradition.
Between 1840 and 1847, FATHER NICHOLAS POINT labored at converting Rocky Mountain Indians to Christianity. Father Point was piously zealous, but also sympathetic,
inquisitive, observant, and addicted to pen and brush. His journals and amateurish but effective paintings have survived, and appear as WILDERNESS KINGDOM (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $17.95), a delightful and informative record of Indian life before the wave of miners and settlers threw it into chaos.