The book John Buffalo Mailer co-wrote with father Norman Mailer comes to life on a Santa Monica stage
By Michael Aushenker
“Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America” was the subtitle of “The Big Empty,” the 2005 book co-written by the late literary giant and cultural provocateur Norman Mailer and his youngest son, author and actor John Buffalo Mailer.
A meditation on any one of those subjects could have easily run book-length, but leave it to the larger-than-life Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Naked and the Dead” and “The Executioner’s Song” — and his progeny — to cram it all into one epic tome.
“The Big Empty” is the source material for “Two Mailers,” a new play by Ronald K. Fried that brings this father-son dialogue to life on Saturday with a special reading at the Edgemar Center for the Arts. Actor Paul Sorvino of “Goodfellas” fame plays Norman, Jordan Belfi (Ari Gold’s nemesis in “Entourage”) plays John Buffalo, and actress Tanna Frederick (who has performed in Edgemar productions of “The Rainmaker” and “45 Minutes from Broadway”) also stars.
“Paul Sorvino does the best Norman Mailer impression I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Mailer, 35. And Belfi — “we were college buddies [at Wesleyan University]. He knows me very well.”
The play, he said, is “Norman Mailer 101 for those not familiar with his ideas and work.”
Like many young writers, Brooklyn-based Mailer grew up a fan of his father’s work, but the two also shared a deep familial bond.
“He was 55 when I was born. We were already very close [before the ‘Big Empty’ collaboration]. He was my best friend, largely because of the age difference,” Mailer said.
Mailer, who died at 84 in 2007, gave detractors and the general public many distractions from his written word through well-documented antics that included a New York City mayoral campaign, a televised tête-à-tête with author Gore Vidal, a public push to free convicted murderer Jack Abbott (who killed again six weeks after his release), a vicious brawl with actor Rip Torn caught on film and seriously wounding second wife Adele Morales with a pen knife, for which he was temporarily institutionalized.
Reactions to his father’s wilder moments have occasionally dogged Mailer.
So imagine the daunting task that awaited John Buffalo Mailer — Norman’s son with his sixth wife, the late writer Norris Church Mailer — when he decided to take up the family profession.
“I knew I was going to take a lot of shit,” he said. But “Growing up in Norman Mailer’s house, you grow up learning how to fight.”
The younger Mailer, who has written several works for stage and screen, said he tends to ignore the inevitable comparisons to his father.
“I don’t think any relatively young author would compare himself to Norman Mailer,” he said. “At the same time, he taught me how to write. I was 17 when I first had the balls [to show him writing].”
That Dad “thought it was good enough to tear it apart” confirmed to John Buffalo that he was on the right professional path.
As writers, father and son boasted “different strengths and weaknesses,” Mailer said. “He was always taken with my ear for dialogue.”
Currently writing his first novel (a take on the world’s religions), Mailer recently adapted one of his plays into the script for the film “Hello Herman.” His acting work has included a role in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” and he co-founded the production company that developed the 2008 Best Musical Tony-winner “In the Heights.”
“It’s tough to make a living in theater these days, but given the less and less tangible things become, I do think theater is more important and will always be around,” Mailer said, alluding to the Internet and studio CG-overkill. “We are inundated with images. No one cares anymore. You see a car crash in a movie and you’re desensitized.”
Mailer is young enough to have embraced technology, but he eschewed social media following his father’s death, when his Friendster account attracted an anti-Semitic missive rejoicing in Norman Mailer’s demise and advances from a schizophrenic stalker.
He recalled his father’s reaction to Friendster — “Why the [expletive] do you want to stick your chin out like that?” — and has grown wary of an online world where “every communication is collected in one place and can be used to publicly assassinate your character.”
As a serious writer, “140 characters is not enough to express an idea,” said Mailer, who also resents that, online, “we are ‘content providers’ instead of writers” and sees social danger in social media obsession and distortions. “They take our language from us; that’s how you slip into a ‘1984’ totalitarianism.”
Conversely, the 1,000-page “‘The Executioner’s Song’ — that was the Great American Novel right there,” said Mailer, who respects how Dad came from “the last generation that tried to attempt it.”
Mailer said his father did not talk privately about other writers, but the two spent many hours dissecting each other’s prose.
“I miss it like I can’t tell you,” Mailer said.
The reading of “Two Mailers,” starts at 8 p.m. Saturday at Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. $15. Call (310) 392-0815 or visit edgemar.org.