20 OCTOBER 1984, Page 33

Ex-wives and witches

Patrick Skene Catling

Tough Guys Don't Dance Norman Mailer (Michael Joseph £8.95) The Witches of Eastwick John Updike (Andre Deutsch £8.95) he prime function of dreams, accord- ing to some morpheologists, is to eliminate psychic waste matter, clearing the mind for relatively important thoughts. Mailer's novels may serve the same pur- Pose, at least for him. Perhaps they make him feel better; however, if I try to take them seriously, they make me feel worse. His typewriter is a veritable cloaca of his subconscious. Women who fall into it are sure to come to a dirty end. His latest novel, Tough Guys Don't Rance, seethes with hatred and madness. He has dedicated it to his agent, Scott Meredith, who with magical skill, habi- tually converts the author's fantastic dia- tribes against women into vast payments of alimony, with quite a lot of money left Over. Mailer said a few years ago that he had to earn $300,000 a year for his ex-wives before he could begin to finance his own expensive life. I don't know whether the amount was index-linked, but it was already certainly stimulus enough to give his fiction a sense of urgency. Many writers, of course, are galvanised by deadlines. Some writers require them. Writing under pressure may sometimes Produce work superior to that composed tranquilly at leisure. Mailer, on one publicly apparent occa- sion, deliberately created a situation in which he was under compelling pressure to write a novel, when he arranged to deliver An American Dream in monthly instal- ments to Esquire magazine. Perhaps the system was intended to force him to contrive a series of cliff-hanging climaxes in the style of Victorian serials and The he of Pauline, with the advantage that 11 was writing the novel in the 1960s, when there could be more clitoral climaxes than cliff-hangers. An American Dream was Pathologically awful rubbish, about mur- der and buggery and so on, Was an and the title n inadequate attempt by Mailer to share the blame with the rest of the Population of the United States. New times, old compulsions. The new novel's blurb is an outstanding example of the blurb-writer's art and should be signed. It promises 'a return to the tough, raw, uncompromising style of Mailer's early fiction' and lists many of the familiar, old ingredients: 'the sexual power game at its most nakedly savage . . . bourbon, cigarettes and blonde, careless women with money . . . descent into darkness and horror . . . a relentless exploration into the recesses of the modern soul.' Strong stuff, huh? Definitely relentless. I like that bit about cigarettes. Not only relentless but unflinching.

The Michael Joseph jacket, designed by Robert Aulicino, is great pictorially, as well. The front photograph, by Joel Meyerowitz, shows a man who looks very much like little Norman himself, in lonely silhouette, standing near the top of a flight of steps (his father figure and rival, Papa Hemingway, would have stood right at the top), overlooking a sanguinary sea beneath a sanguinary sunset with dark storm- clouds. Or is that a red sky at morning, novelists' warning? Anyway, it is both tragically sentimental and threatening.

TUrning to the back, one finds Nancy Crampton's gritty black-and-white portrait of the novelist in a characteristically chal- lenging mood, as if confronting someone at George Plimpton's literary salon on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who has just said something disrespectful about the existential commitment of the homicidal dipsomaniac, a subject which Mailer seems to have claimed as his own.

In case anyone is beginning to wonder, perhaps I should say that I read the novel too. Every word. I remember many of them. The story is written in the first person about a non-writing writer, whose wife has recently abandoned him in a house beside the sea in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the lonely off-season. He wakes up one morning with a hangover and alcoholic amnesia, finds blood in his car and wonders what he did the night before. His uneasiness is compounded when he finds a woman's severed head in the place where he always stashes his dope. I do not suppose that you would wish me to lessen the suspense by telling more. The writing is logorrhoeal, ranging in style from Mailer Archaic (he 'did not look to tarry in a bar': 'bourbon near to scor- ching my tongue'; 'Let no one look to sup on food grown farther away from his home than the distance he can carry it on his back in a day's walk') to neological, depraved baby-talk ('go gooey-gooey down there', for example, meaning fellate). It would be hard to choose the most annoying sentence in the book but here is one candidate:

If he had been a soul in torment, or wished to murder the Lord, or had kissed the Devil beneath the tail and was now a slave, I could have put up with heresy, fallacy, perjury, antinomianism, Arianism, emanatism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism, even Mono- physitism or Catharism, but not this damn atheist who believed in spirits that came in electronic streams.

The title is attributed to a New York Mafia boss who ordered three heavyweight boxers at his nightclub table to dance in turn with his mistress but refused to dance with her himself, because, he said, 'Tough guys don't dance'. The anecdote is not original. Mailer thanks his 'old friend' Roger Donoghue for it.

John Updike's novel about wickedness in New England is sophisticated, elegant and amusing, with some serious implica- tions about the The Meaning of Evil which probably will not disturb anyone too sev- erely. In The Witches of Eastwick, the three principal characters, attractive, youngish divorcees who live all the year round in small houses in a summer place on Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, really are, quite literally, modern witches. Their coven meets regularly in one house or another and they enjoy cosy, malicious gossip over martinis in the kitchen. There is plenty to gossip about in Eastwick: 'Being a divorcée in a small town is a little like playing Monopoly; eventually you land on all the properties.'

One of the witches plays the cello, a second writes features for the local paper, the Eastwick Word, and the third makes ceramic figurines — a useful talent for a witch. Their artistic interests provide Up- dike with many reasonable occasions for expressing his own considerable know- ledge of the arts with a good deal of charm.

A repulsive but curiously influential New York businessman moves alone into an Eastwick mansion and changes the witches' lives. He claims to be an inventor. He is a satanic figure who insidiously demands orgiastic attentions and even ten- nis. In the early stages of the novel the witchcraft seems merely prankish, causing rain to clear teenagers from a beach, an annoying neighbour's pearl necklace to break, and a tennis ball to turn in mid- flight into a toad — that sort of thing.

Jealous rivalry incites the witches to perform more harmful magic, but New England is not as strict as it was. There is no burning at the stake. No red-hot pin- cers, not even metaphorical ones. There is a slight falling off at the very end, I thought. But this is an entertaining book, greatly enriched throughout by its poetic, witty prose.