Last night I finished reading Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore. Barbary is Mailer’s second book, and it is neither his best seller nor his best read. In short, it sucked. But writing is hard. And I’m sure Mailer worked diligently at this book. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out. If you want to read Mailer, read The Naked and the Dead. Don’t read Barbary Shore.
I will say that Mailer’s characters are great. They are all interesting and unexpected. The narrator, Lovett, is a World War II vet that takes a cheap room in a boarding house in order to write a novel. He has an interesting (if long-winded) narrative voice that immediately draws you in. At the boarding house, Lovett comes across several unusual characters: a self-taught eccentric, a quiet and awkward hayseed, a landlady that is a former burlesque dancer, and a hippie girl. At first, all of this seemed straightforward enough to me, and I imagined that Barbary Shore would be a character novel, like Tortilla Flat.
It’s not. Up until the first quarter, Barbary shore is a great read. Then things change.
Once everyone has been introduced, their true identities are suddenly revealed. It turns out that the eccentric is the husband of the landlady. He is also a socialist and former revolutionist. The hayseed is really a government agent on the trail of the eccentric. And god only knows what the hippie is, other than someone that is very angry at the eccentric for abandoning his socialist ideals. Throughout the book, the eccentric and hayseed repeatedly refer to a “little object” that one has and that the other wants. What this “little object” is is never made clear — although I suppose it is actually the eccentric’s socialist ideals. Throughout, the narrator Lovett simply watches everything unfold in a detached manner. And since everything is told from his perspective, Mailer has to put Lovett in some pretty cliched spots in order to catch the action. Lovett hides in closets. He stands in dark corners. And sometimes, people simply invite him to attend private meetings for no real reason.
And did I mention that the section leading to the climax of the book is a speech. Man, those are the worst. In all, I was a bit distracted this week with work and family. I’ll admit to reading Barbary Shore quickly. So If I’m off the mark, let me know. But perhaps my opinion was colored by this fact:
In 1960, Mailer stabbed Adele [his wife] with a penknife after a party, nearly killing her. He cut through her breast, only just missing her heart. Then he stabbed her in the back. As she lay there, haemorrhaging, one man reached down to help her. He snapped: “Get away from her. Let the bitch die.”
It almost reads like a scene from Barbary Shore.