Too many books are called "unfilmable" as a matter of habit; each of us, I bet, can offer an example of a novel that" could not be adopted" that found a splendid movie interpreter. "An American Dream," though, is one of those books that truly does not lend itself well to what we regard as good moving making source material. This version was so redacted as something resembling a Saturday Night Live sketch rather than a vision of one's breakdown and journey into the psychic wilds.
AAD was Mailer's best use of Lawrence's influences and his unique ideas about religious existentialism. It was a brooding, baroque and sensationalistic embrace of the irrational, the madness poet Allan Ginsberg declared that we must not hide, the intensely focused idea that the impulses beyond the Norm can actually deliver us, individually and collectively, from greater insanity that erodes our humanity, and worse, our masculinity by the repulsive inch. Crackpot theories of all sorts proposing extreme and unsubstantiated cures for the ailing psyche were resonating in Mailer's mind at the time he took on the endeavor to write An American Dream on deadline, a chapter a month for Esquire magazine, the goal is to write quickly for equally quick cash. Mailer took the challenge and never looked back, the result being what would be an utterly ridiculous novel saved only by the sublime and frenetic flights of language the author's fevered pace produced as each deadlined reared. It isn't surprising that Mailer had a few of his own, a spikey concoction took from Marx, Wilhelm Reich, Lawrence. It was a crime novel, a novel of metaphysical mulling, a tale of a spiritual quest, a black comedy, a confession, a serial about the dysfunctions of the wealthy. The things that irritated readers in the novel--murder, sodomy, a battle with a black musician with a definite hoodlum style--are nonetheless presented with the frenetic brilliance of Mailer's prose, a rushing stream of continuous simile, metaphor, and allegory of a man in the throes of a breakdown that leaves a good amount of wreckage in his wake. At the same time, he pursues the impulse to learn how to be brave and love genuinely by extraordinary measures.
The film, the skeletal and deadpan rendition of the admittedly lurid plot, gets none of Mailer's tone, nuance, or inclination precisely. This was Mailer's testing his theories about violence and transformation from "The White Negro" and what it revealed to Mailer, I believe, was that the kind of spiritual transformation through an embrace of an anti-social and psychotic definition of "courage" resulted in Mailer didn't expect, which caused Mailer to re-think his notions about the curative properties of his imagined road to genuine masculinity. It seems that the gulf between Saint and Psychotic was larger than he first thought, that the psychotic is in a state in which they remain psychotic and become a threat to themselves and the communities in which they live.
Do the pure products of America go insane, as WC Williams has remarked? In any event, his next novel, "Why Are We in Vietnam," a cannily refurbished telling of Faulkner's short tale "The Bear," puts to men in the woods hunting pray with far too much firepower and reveals characters trying to make nature bow to their will and weapons, with a narrator, DJ, telling the tale in a surreal mix of idioms--disc jockey, black hipster, a southern baptist preacher, literary scholar--ranting on about God and men and penises and caca with no direct connection to anything outside nature if only to insist in a diffuse ramble that all returns to earth as waste. And the question in the title is answered only on the last page, but with no direct answer but this ."Hot damn! Vietnam". Do the pure products of America go insane? Mailer answered by imagining his notions of achieving masculinity through blood rites: as pure American products, we were in Vietnam because we had to be. We end up being the things we choose to become, with results that run afoul of our ideas of resulting benefits.