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The Born Identity

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IN A BOUT of sheer coincidence, I had just finished rereading parts of Norman Mailer's 1959 masterpiece Advertisements for Myself when I stumbled across the current issue of Rolling Stone, which features Douglas Brinkley's wonderful article on that author. Mailer is the only one left of his generation of great irreverent, troublemaking American novelists and men of letters. At 83, he's on his last legs, literally. Due to massive arthritis and gout, he needs two canes to get around these days.

Of course, I got to thinking. You see, Mailer and I share the same birthday, Jan. 31.

A few years ago, I crept into Waldenbooks and opened The Great Big Book of Birthdays, or whatever it was called, and naturally skipped to my own. This is what it said: People born on this day need to be heard. As stupid and superficial as that sounds, it changed my life. I immediately recalled Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols—also born on Jan. 31, and then, of course, Mailer, whose 1998 appearance at San Jose State was quite a doozie. After reading a text, he opened up the auditorium for questions. One of Bill Clinton's pursuits those days was to get homosexuals accepted in the military, but Mailer dismissed the whole plan. "This is the army you're talking about," he said. "Trying to do that is like sticking your member up the buttocks of the Pentagon."

The turtle-neck-and-sport-coat-wearing folks from the Center for Arts and Letters began shifting in their seats. It was beautiful. It was clear that Mailer had pretty much seen it all in life and couldn't have cared less about delivering a speech. He just wanted everyone in the audience to line up and ask him questions so he could stand there onstage and shoot his mouth off. I like that quality. I have a little bit of it myself. Maybe there is something to this whole birthday concept after all.

Mailer's Advertisements for Myself contains several raucous tidbits and it reads just as well today as it probably did back in the '50s. One reviewer on Amazon said, "It is Mailer's best work; heavy-drinking political journalism with a sharp weather-eye for cynical abuse of cultural icons and religion in manipulation of protokaryotic cellular life. ... One needs to sit at the Bar at the Crown & Cork Hotel in Provincetown, MA, close by the neon lobster pot signs illuminating gleaming rain-streaked alleyways—and order a Jameson against the cold—to appreciate Mailer."

In the Rolling Stone article, Brinkley had this to say about him: "As with the beat writers, provocations became a Mailer trademark. But he was never a true countercultural figure: it's more that he could move freely between all of these different worlds. That was a big part of his raw genius: He could hang with the Jewish intellectuals and the Harlem poets, with the hipsters, the Beats, the hippies. He was friends with dozens of Eastern establishmentarians. But he never really adopted any of these fashionable cliques, because he felt more personally blessed with God-ordained talent—sui generis—than them."

I can identify with that passage completely. I've always explained to everyone that I'm a social butterfly. I go everywhere. Fashionable restaurants and dive bars. Everything's fair game. I'll travel to Quebec to write an upscale destination piece for a corporate meeting planner magazine and then turn around and write about pigeon poop in downtown San Jose for Metro.

Are these bloated ramblings of mine just disguised self-aggrandizement? Absolutely. When a reader blasted Mailer's Village Voice column in 1955 for exactly the same reason, this was his response, which he reprinted in Advertisements for Myself:

"Dear Mr. Ekstrand: I really do have a poor character. Wouldn't it be dishonest and a fraud on the public, as well as deeply un-American, to present myself as better than I am? Let others profit by my unseemly self-absorption, and so look to improve their own characters."

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From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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