Arts Desk

Heat Wave: Edie Sedgwick Goes to SXSW, Day 2

Do not read this book.

Not yet acclimated to the late nights and late mornings of a touring rock 'n' roll band, I wake up at 8 a.m. on a couch in Pittsburgh after having lay down on the couch only five hours before. With nothing to do, I am forced to finish reading Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam?, a book so terrible that, though it has nothing to do with SXSW, must be disscected in 350-700 words for Washington City Paper.

Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam?, published in 1967, is not, as one might reasonably think, a penetrating collection of "New Journalism" essays about America's quixotic, disastrous adventure in Vietnam. Instead, it is a novel about a young man's hunting trip to Alaska as recounted by the young man in rambling beatnik hipster-ese (or, at least, a 40-something Mailer's suspect version of rambling beatnik hipster-ese also explored in his controversial, potentially-interesting-but-probably-terrible 1957 essay "The White Negro") on the eve of his tour of duty in that South Asian nation. While "hunting-animals-as-metaphor-for-hunting-people" is a lame device that produces mediocre "war art" (e.g., The Deer Hunter), Mailer's bold attempt to write like James Joyce (an author explicitly referenced at least twice in the novel) for a Baby Boomer audience didn't have to result in a manuscript so objectively terrible. Yet it did, because Norman Mailer is obsessed with orifices.

You read that right. Unless one is a proctologist, "orifice" is not a word one uses in everyday conversation. I haven't read Nicholas Sparks, but I'd bet it's not in most Nicholas Sparks novels. Yet, orifices pop up (or open) quite often in Why We Are in Vietnam? These orifices usually shit, producing "turds." They can also be stuffed with dicks, or "peeny dicks," or "limp dicks," or, memorably, a "dick like a Nigger." Mailer also likes to stuff dicks into "pussies," "bitches," "wombs" and "snatches." If Mailer puts a dick in an ass or an asshole, that's "bum fucking." One character "don't come, he explodes, he's a geyser of love, hot piss, shit, corporation pus, hate, and heart, baby, he blasts." Perhaps this last sentence is what motivated The New York Review of Books to call Why Are We In Vietnam? a "book of great integrity," or The New York Times to call it "original, courageous, and provocative." (Maybe it was the "nigger dick" that caught the Gray Lady's attention.)

Now, as anyone familiar the photo of Bret Easton Ellis that hangs above my desk at work (few) or with my lyrics (fewer) knows, I don't object to this orifice-centric language because I'm a prude, or voted for Sarah Palin, or because I think it's sexist (though it is), or racist (though it is). Because Mailer is so obsessed with dudes, dicks, and assholes, it's also silly to call him a homophobe. I object to this language—and, frankly, to Mailer as an author and as a person in general, from The Naked and the Dead to When We Were Kingsbecause it is 1) unsexy; and 2) furthers the myth purposefully or unintentionally perpetuated by Erich Remarque, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, John Milius, Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola that war is a hellish, but somehow worthwhile crucible in which men become men.

Fuck that. This idea is for teenagers, or for Charlie Sheen. War sucks! Not in a cool way, like the terrible night Zach Galifianakis et. al. endure in The Hangover—in a really bad way, like the DMV or the dentist. I'm almost 35, and I don't have to consume anything produced by the Remarque-Greene-Hemingway-Milius-Kubrick-Stone-Coppola axis of evil anymore. It is time to call these men (inevitably, these artists are men) what they are: douchebags.

After I finish reading Why Are We in Vietnam?, I drive to Cleveland and play a show in a venue filled with 75 people, 75 percent of whom watch the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on the TV behind the bar. I sleep on a hard floor, using a drum throne as a pillow. I don't know how much I got paid because the dude on whose floor I slept didn't pay me yet. In the night, my eyes bleed, my peeny dick rises, and I become a man.

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  • http://www.thetorches.net SJPG

    I disagree.

    In Stanley Kubrick's war, the men do not become men. If anything, they regress, they become boys. In the end of Full Metal Jacket, they do not sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, they sing the Theme to the Mickey Mouse club and then the Rolling Stones scowl away the credits. In Barry Lyndon, they prance around in regalia and break down the second things "get real," and the only survivor, for the audience, is our eponymous shell of a man. In Dr. Strangelove, there is not a "man" to be seen, if we define "man" as a human in possession of full faculties. And in Paths of Glory, the "men become men" only when they refuse to fight.

    Otherwise, I love you, Edie.

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