Norman Mailer: “An Agreeable Proposal”

I encountered him at dusk, near a heap of bananas. To be precise, however, our first real introduction occurred on a bitter spring night three years earlier in 2000, when I worked as a waiter at a small Cape Cod restaurant called the Commons. Norman Mailer, his wife, and two guests had come in to dine. It was the end of April, the last lingering period of our winter season, a sluggish and difficult time for business in Provincetown, which is mainly a summer destination. The town sits isolated at the tip of the Cape, bordered by beaches that are inviting in temperate months and merciless the remainder of the year. In gray, squally periods the seclusion can be brutal; trophy houses sit vacant, narrow streets are deserted, and the three thousand folks who tough winter out adjust their lives accordingly as the economy dwindles amid shortening days. For those who live and work here, the shift in seasons requires a sturdy disposition. Often residents invent private rules for survival by weighing financial gain against how much work is required to accomplish a task; time becomes precious as the urge to return home to hibernate the winter out takes hold.

The evening Mr. Mailer’s party came to eat, the buzz around the waiters’ station was that no one wanted any more customers. It had been yet another unprofitable table wait shift, and the Mailers might stay well after closing. At best, the table would be worth a twenty for the extra hours. A fellow waiter, Margaret, a small woman with a large mouth, popped off, “Besides,everyone knows Mailer is difficult!”

I had no basis for what to think about Norman Mailer. I knew he lived in town, but I’d never seen him and knew nothing about how he lived. I figured if he was crazy enough to stay here all winter long, he was probably a fairly regular guy. There were the few stories I’d heard about him shopping at the A&P or chatting in line at the post office with townies. That information didn’t exactly inspire images of abstract fame or swollen ego that one often attaches to celebrity, but what did I know? Margaret said he was difficult, and since she was more or less a dependable busybody there must be some nugget of truth to it.

As I watched Mr. Mailer plot his way to the table nearest the window with the aid of two canes, it seemed to me that this elderly man with white hair, stout mass, and wide smile could not possibly be a tricky customer. I was impressed by the way he gestured for his wife to sit first and then inquired about the comfort of the others before he took his own seat. Mr. Mailer seemed refined and generous, and his well-mannered disposition was unmistakable.

The memory of seeing him on television when I was a boy came flooding back as I watched from a distance. I could scarcely equate him now to the quick-tongued man who remained as a shadow on my brain. I’d read some of his other works in the years between then and now, and I was inclined to distrust the accounts I’d also read about his supposed antics. I was aware that much of what is written about famous people is often completely made up or an exaggerated version of a cluttered truth. Considering that, I trusted my gut.

I had a tendency to respect writers more than most artists, because I knew, in a small way, how difficult the business was. I’d worked as a writer in several careers by then, scripting copy for a television show and stinting as an assistant managing editor for a small Boston newspaper, to mention two. I admired anybody who wrote for a living (not to mention a solid living). Lastly, I held an express appreciation for Norman Mailer’s work. Perhaps chance or enigmatic design had entered the picture, but on the evening Mr. Mailer entered my restaurant, The Gospel According to the Son sat three-quarters finished on my bedside table. A friend, a particularly pleasant woman who was not outwardly devout but nonetheless obdurate in her Catholic faith, had loaned it to me. “It touched me,” she said when she passed it on. “But I’m not sure I understand it all.”

That comment —“I’m not sure I understand it all” — was a familiar remark one encountered when Norman Mailer’s books came up for discussion. To be honest, the phrase had tumbled from my own mouth more than once.

Now there he was in front of me, the Author whose work three generations could not always wholly grasp, waiting to be fed. Brash naïveté told me I was up for the challenge. I informed the other waiters that I would take the table and they could start shutting down for the night. After all, how long could the job of caring for Mailer possibly go on?

I approached and introduced myself.

Mr. Mailer looked up at me. A grin that had not left his face since he walked in the doorway now widened to a full smile. Behind his gemstone-blue eyes I saw the grand instrument that was his brain fire to life for the first time.

“Dwayne. You must be from the South,” he said. His voice was quick, his tone sharply amusing. It was not so much a question as a declaration. He was positive he had pegged my birthplace merely by geographical association.

On my end, I was ensnared in an awkward position: The author was wrong. I took a moment to answer.

“No,” I said tentatively. “I’m actually from the Northwest. Oregon. I’ve never really been to the South.”

That wasn’t entirely accurate. I’d been to Florida twice, on disastrous attempts to escape Provincetown’s sanity-sucking winters, but those occasions had only reaffirmed my affection for Cape Cod as home. No matter how isolating it could be, I was, at the very least, comfortable with Provincetown’s unique wintertime peculiarities. The South’s balmy lure seemed false and frivolous to me, and I had resolved to avoid it in the future.

Buy Mornings with Mailer on Amazon.com

Upon hearing he was off the mark, Mr. Mailer’s grin abated slightly but didn’t leave his face completely. “So, where does the ‘Dwayne’ come from?”

Apparently, he required an answer. If his initial conclusion had been wrong, then he needed to know precisely why. This was also my first brush with his ardent thirst for accuracy. I told him my name was my dad’s idea. My father wanted to name me for his best friend, but my mother wrote it incorrectly on my birth certificate. This admission that my existence was first noted with a spelling error was a true but pointless comment spawned by a sudden bloat of nerves.

“I was supposed to be a D-U-A-N-E.” I stammered, “My dad wasn’t thrilled about it.”

I realized that somehow I’d slipped into an area just shy of incoherent. Although I have never been inclined toward celebrity awe, meeting Norman Mailer was causing a decidedly abject effect. Mr. Mailer was not only one of the world’s greatest writers and foremost political thinkers, but also ridiculously famous. The rush of adrenaline triggered by my proximity to him, combined with the oddity of being quizzed by him, was suddenly at full charge. Surely my befuddlement was painted on my face like a clown’s mask. Norris, his stunning wife of twenty-eight years, tossed me a life jacket in the form of reprimand to her husband.

“Oh Norman, just because someone is named ‘Dwayne’ doesn’t mean they always have to be from the South,” she said, smiling up at me.

Norris Church Mailer was from the South, and all of the most favorable traits this suggests sprang elegantly from her through a masterfully applied layer of luxurious New York polish. Mr. Mailer accepted his wife’s verbal punch and the reality of my origins. He returned his attention to me and ordered a whiskey sour with extra fruit. The remainder of the evening went smoothly, and at appropriate times Mr. Mailer and I shared a good deal of conversation. I don’t recall everything we discussed, but at one point I mentioned that I wrote.

Perhaps it was bold of me to divulge this to the man who had written forty books and founded The Village Voice, but what I had sensed from Mr. Mailer was a desire for truth from whomever he was talking to. Even though I was just a waiter, I was no exception. It didn’t matter to him that I’d barely been published — a few articles and some TV news writing. The point was that I cared about my work, and as a result, he did, too. I came to understand over the years that Norman Mailer never took his own rocket blast of success as typical, as some who find great notoriety at the whim of the universe often did. He knew that his achievements were statistically exceptional and he once declared that he felt as if he had, perhaps,“arrived at the bullfight too early.” That modest acknowledgment usually kept him from waving the flag of superiority in anyone’s face.

Over the following three years, I encountered both Mr. and Mrs. Mailer on occasion. They sometimes ate at whatever restaurant I happened to be working in for a season, or, now and then, I would bump into him at the post office. Several times I met him on the street while he was taking a walk. He was always generous with good words and he never avoided conversation by pretending to be in a rush. As we’d chat, his questions often revolved around what it was like for me to live and work in Provincetown now. When he had come to town many decades before, Ptown, as it is affectionately known by many, was an entirely different environment. In his day, it swarmed with artists and mislaid souls who drank with brawny fishermen who wrangled with weekend bikers who roared through town in packs. The result was a population that was up to no good and constantly on the hunt for fun.

He made the remark often in interviews that Provincetown was perhaps “the freest town in America.” Looking back on our spontaneous discussions, I wonder if possibly he was trying to determine if this was still accurate. As he was elderly now, and spent most of his time in the tranquil East End of town, he was not as familiar with the fabric that made up Ptown as he once had been.

Encountering him was something I looked forward to, as our chats were happy accidents seasoned with significance. I never knew when I’d bump into him, and I never sought him out directly. There was one August evening, however, while riding my bike through his end of town, when I considered stopping to visit him. The sun was setting and the water in the harbor behind the houses along the street was splintered with the unusual blue that sundown in Provincetown generates. I was near his old red brick home and I recall thinking that the house was set perfectly against the shore. Yes, many others lined the beach, but none seemed to have the same magnetism that this one did. The ivy-covered walls of the Mailer house appeared to meld fluidly into the lawn surrounding them. I imagined the house hid old mysteries and the faded echoes of laughing children. Also, it seemed entirely out of place among the other wooden homes on the street because it looked more like a private Victorian library than a house.

For a few moments as I paused on the street I thought about knocking on the door. I believed I knew the Mailers well enough to do it, but I feared the act would appear impetuous. What,exactly, would I say? I got off my bike and sat near a row of boxwoods across the road and spent several minutes debating the idea. I wondered what it must be like to live there, in that big house with all that room. I was not awestruck by the size of the house; I just thought it must be a fine place for a writer to work. I knew from years of practice that good writing did not come easily when you lived in mediocre surroundings.

I did not knock on his door to say hello that night. I skipped the idea and instead pedaled out to Beach Point for a walk on the sand. Taking an evening wade was the easier choice.

Two summers passed, and I tolerated a thousand nights of serving strangers food and as many days of unbalanced direction. I also perfected the act of turning my head from tough decisions. My days established themselves as comfortable, if not tediously unsettled. Then I ran into Norman Mailer one
more time, just near a barrel of half-ripe bananas.

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