If Christopher Hitchens could contrive a best seller and a brand new way to enrage out of collecting every argument against religion that ever meant anything to him, surely Norman Mailer -- America's blunderbuss metaphysician without portfolio -- could get some attention by propounding his homemade neo-Gnosticism for 200 pages.
Then again, maybe not.
Michael Lennon -- who is somewhat ominously described on the dustflap as the 84-year old writer's "friend and literary executor" -- can certainly be forgiven for understanding that in his way, Mailer has been brewing up theological elixirs for decades in his gaseous basement. Some of us, after all, remember that Mailer used to write commentaries on Martin Buber's "Tales of the Hasidim" for Esquire Magazine four decades ago (and such was the literary climate of the time that it seemed a clever, and possibly even brilliant, idea).
It will follow, then, for Mailer's most devoted readers -- whoever they are at this stage -- that a long conversation about God might be worth reading.
"I see God . . . as a creator, as the greatest artist," he says right up front so that we understand immediately that in a sense he and God are in the same business. And then, a few sentences later, he offers it as an "error" on the part of God the Artist that some fish "have hideous eyes -- they protrude from the head many inches long" thereby becoming unsightly to Norman Mailer. One needn't be too philosophical, of course, to imagine a God who might have cared equally about Mailer's unsightliness in the tubular eyes of those fish along with their unsightliness in his. But then we wouldn't be playing Mailer's game, which is to raise solipsism to a level it has seldom achieved since our species emerged from the primal ooze (where the poor ugly fish belong, as Mailer no doubt has it).
Things go on from there with Rabbi Ben Norman discoursing wisely, learnedly, stimulatingly, asininely, hilariously and hideously on our "triangular relationship with God and the Devil, trying to sense the best thing to do at a given moment, be it a good thing or a bad thing." ("The trouble with Henry James" he says orotundly at one point, is that "he never f----- another human being" which may not be the best comment he could have made at that existential moment.)
Let's just say, then, for the orthodox Mailerites wandering through the wilderness still thirsty and uninstructed, that here is the best thing for his given literary moment. And let's -- the rest of us -- leave it to them to decide whether it's a good thing or a bad one.
While we slip out the back, and reread "The Presidential Papers," "Cannibals and Christians," "Why Are We in Vietnam," "Miami and the Siege of Chicago," and "Armies of the Night."
Jeff Simon is the News' Arts and Books editor.
On God:An Uncommon Conversation By Norman Mailer With Michael Lennon
215 pages, $26.95