Norman Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago, his account of the 1968 political conventions, and Armies of the Night constitute some of the finest writing from that decade and ushered in what came to be known as "the New Journalism," which incorporated novelistic techniques into reportage. Mailer captures the apocalyptic air of that year: "And the country roaring like a bull in its wounds, coughing like a suck lung in the smog, turning over in sleep at the sound of motorcycles, shivering at its need for new phalanxes of order."
With a growing opposition to the war in Vietnam, black rage, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Mailer attended the Republican Grand Gala at the Fountainebleau Hotel in Miami: "(T)hey were obviously in large part composed of a thousand of the wealthiest Republicans in the land, the corporate and social power of America was here in legions of interconnection he could not even begin to trace. . . (H)ere they were, the economic power of America. . .the family power. . .the military power (to the extent that important sword-rattlers and/or patriots were among the company, as well as cadres of corporations not unmarried to the Pentagon) yes, even the spiritual power of America (just so far as Puritanism, Calvinism, conservatism and golf still gave the Wasp an American faith. . ."
Later that year, Mailer would observe, by all accounts, a riot break out on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic Convention between anti-war protesters and Mayor Richard Daley's police run amuck: "(Y)es, children, and youths, and middle-aged men and women were being pounded and clubbed and gassed and beaten, hunted and driven, sent scattering in all directions by teams of policemen who had exploded out of their restraints lilke the bursting of a boil. . .as if the war had finally begun. . .as if. . .the Democratic Party had here broken in two before the eyes of a nation like Melville's whale charging right of the sea." Indeed, the country itself was breaking in half.
In his introduction, Tom Wicker notes Mailer the novelist's gift for the telling detail, but perception and the imaginative metaphor too (the boil and the whale of the above passage). One doesn't have to share the author's views on sex, violence, women, African Americans or any number of subjects--this critic doesn't--in order to concede the excellence of his reporting. If Mailer has always professed to admire Hemingway, in Miami and the Siege, he reminds one of Dickens in the accumulation of social detail and Henry James in the prolixity of his sentences. Like Dickens, he was writing for serial publication and thus very fast.
Having achieved fame early with his World War II novel, Naked and the Dead, Mailer has always been a protean figure, and his career took a wayward and unpredictable turn, as he recounts in Advertisements for Myself. But in Miami and the Siege, he documents the temper of what Eldridge Cleaver called those "swift, fierce years" in all their extremity.
Since we are mired again in an unpopular war with no clear exit strategy, a dynastic presidency (as Maureen Dowd observed and what Mailer referred to as "family power"), a lameduck, besieged leader and a stalled Congress, and a polarized country on the eve of a presidential election year, perhaps Mailer's book should be read not as an artifact of a bygone era, but a cautionary tale that instructs the reader to desire more than mere "new phalanxes of order."
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