I’ve had mixed results with Norman Mailer’s work in the past – I loved The Executioner’s Song, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction even though it’s pretty clearly a work of non-fiction, but bailed on The Naked and the Dead after just a handful of pages because of its turgid prose and Dickensian attention to detail. When I read that he’d written a noir-ish detective novel, though, I figured the genre would at least make up for any obstacles I found in his writing, and contemporary reviews of the book, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, were so positive that I gave it a shot. It’s somewhere in the middle for me, overdone as a work of genre fiction, but also, I think, exploring a theme that’s basically absent from the first fifty years or so of hard-boiled detective stories.
Tim Madden is a writer who never seems to write anything, and whose wife has walked out on him, apparently for good this time. Their relationship is built on nothing much at all, but he’s broken up about it, and goes on a bender one night after meeting a couple from California in a bar in his adopted home of Provincetown (a small town at the tip of Cape Cod that, then and now, is known as a gay haven, which turns out to matter substantially in the story). He wakes up the next morning to find he has a tattoo with the name of a woman he doesn’t know, blood all over the inside of his car, and, eventually, a woman’s head in the place where he stashes his marijuana. He’s then left to try to figure out what happened – including who the woman was and whether he killed her – while various people from his past and present show up, including the woman he once dumped for his wife after they went to a swingers’ party, and complicate his efforts to solve the crime.
The novel’s style seems a clear callback to the hard-boiled novels of which I am so fond, although Mailer’s prose is more involved than the clipped tones of Dashiell Hammett or the sparse artistry of Raymond Chandler. It’s almost too well-written for the genre, in that you can tell this is a very good writer trying his hand at an unfamiliar type of writing. Nearly all of the side characters are straight out of central casting – dimwitted hoods, ex-boxers, corrupt cops – but Tim himself is unique, a writer rather than a detective, a child of privilege who got kicked out of Exeter, a former drug dealer who did a stint in prison where he met a former Exeter classmate of his who’ll also figure in the present mystery.
I’m completely interpreting here, but I think Mailer was trying to explore questions of masculinity, especially as it related to homosexuality, something that’s even telegraphed in the novel’s title, which comes from an anecdote within the book where a mobster utters that line, as if dancing would erode his toughness. (It also called to mind the Belle & Sebastian line, “We all know you’re soft/cause we’ve all seen you dancing.”) Most of the male characters in the novel are grappling with maintaining some sort of facade of manliness in the face of emotions that, I think especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, would have marked them as effeminate, if not as “gay” in the pejorative sense of the term. There’s a lot of just plain ol’ fashioned heterosexual depravity in this book, and of course given the time of its writing (published in 1984), there’s quite a bit of homophobic language, including a reference to “Kaposi’s plague,” which refers to a rare cancer that became common among gay men at the time and turned out to be associated with AIDS. But so much of that content read to me like men trying to prove they’re men – I’m not gay, see how I say awful things about gay men, they’re all (bundles of sticks), I’d like to kill them all, etc. The straight men doth protest too much.
And while I doubt “toxic masculinity” was even a term back in the early 1980s – as far as I can tell, it was coined well after the book was written – there’s a huge element of that within the book and behind the crime itself. Without spoiling the whodunit, I’ll say that men trying to either prove their masculinity or suppress characteristics that might be labeled as feminine or gay loom very large within the story, enough that when I finished the book, I found that theme was much more on my mind than the plot itself, which was a little too convoluted, with the murders kind of too pointless for this style of novel. That makes it a cerebral detective story, but maybe not as compelling of a mystery as the classics of the genre are.
Next up: Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo Award-winning novel Spin.