Last night, I sent a letter to the Editor of The New Yorker. I believed I had found a photo caption mistake in a piece on the letters of Norman Mailer.
The photo caption in question reads, “Mailer in 1944 (left)…before being shipped to the Pacific.” In the photo itself, a young, uniformed and seriously tough-looking Mailer looks up at the camera, a cigarette juts from his lips. The caption is obviously in error because on the left breast of his army uniform shirt, he’s wearing a “Combat Infantryman’s Badge.” That badge is awarded to infantrymen after they sustain a requisite number of days, weeks, months in combat. The picture must have been taken upon his return to the Pacific or the caption is incorrect.
This morning, looking again at the photograph, I began to wonder, what if the caption was indeed correct and it was the picture that is wrong or misleading. What if Mailer had not yet seen combat? What if he is wearing an award that he is not entitled to wear? What if Mailer is posing?
But then again, so what? Who in their life never struck an immodest or false posture, complete with bogus costuming? If Mailer is wearing the badge for effect, I believe his posing was aspirational. Mailer is telling the world how he saw himself at that moment before being shipped overseas and into war. He looks like he really believes and hopes that when he returns, dead, wounded or alive, it will be as a veteran infantryman who has done his part. Mailer did come under fire in the Philippines, as nasty a campaign as the Second World War offered, but he ended up a cook rather than a rifleman.
If indeed, the photo caption is correct and it’s Norman who’s incorrect, it’s just one more reason that underlies why I always liked him. He was not only a fine writer, “The Executioner’s Song” should rank among the best writing of Twentieth Century America, but he was also the leading actor in the wild movie of his life. Much married, a prizefighting drinker and stoner who espoused passionately some awful causes – think Jake Abbott. – but a man who always participated with his foot to the floor. I fondly remember the campaign slogan of the Mailer/Breslin New York mayoralty run, “No More Bullshit.”
The selection of Mailer’s letters in the October 6, 2008 issue of The New Yorker reveal his brilliance, his combativeness and also his capacity for friendship. They also cement the fact that he was one of the good guys.