” I thought of courage and of cowardice, and how we are all brave and all terrified each in our own way and our private changing proportion, and I thought of honesty and deception, and the dance of life they make, for it is exactly when we come closest to another that we are turned away with a lie, and blunder forward on a misconception, moving to understand ourselves on the platitudes and lies of the past. ” (Ch.24, p.325)
First off, the title refers to the French 18th century and an aristocratic playground, where society elites explore their dark sides. In this novel, the deer park is reassessed for the 1950s in the cactus wild of Southern California, a desert oasis known as Desert D’Or (not Dior), that could very well be the Hollywood playground of Palm Springs.
The narrator is Sergius O’Shaugnessay, a brilliant and beautiful fake standing 6-1, all-American alpha-male blond with six planes under his belt. The young Korean War veteran won a sizable fortune in a poker game in Tokyo and he uses it to suggest he is from wealth and family, instead of an orphanage. Soon he’s a social figure—through Dorothea O’Faye, a onetime singer, a hostess who has an entourage of followers currying her favor. Her (bastard) son was brought up in the chaotic world of Hollywood. He’s so disgusted with the human race that he takes up procuring as a form of protest. He becomes a pimp who pulls string for the celebrated show-biz executives and producers.
I found myself remembering the pleasures of loneliness, thinking that if loneliness was difficult well then so was love, until I wish Lulu off to the capital in order to leave him at rest. (Ch.13, p.143)
The people are just as lonely and barren as the landscape they inhabit in. There’s Charles Eitel, a renowned film director with a leftist past who is being investigated by a Congressional committee. A humane and intelligent man, he continues to salvage his career, yet crippled by the inevitable need to stay successful. He takes up with a beautiful yet self-destructive and neurotic woman, Elena Esposito, who is raw with need. She has been former mistress of Collie Munshin, the son-in-law of the motion picture studio boss. Eitel has been married previously to Lulu Meyers, a young star of the day, a spoiled actress with teasing caprice, who quickly falls in love with Sergius as quickly as she gives him the brush and marries a homosexual actor. In short, everyone sleeps with each other.
What seemed most odious to him was that they had been tender to each other, they had forgiven one another, and yet he did not love her, she did not love him, no one ever loved anyone. (Ch.21, p.297)
The Deer Park is like day-time soap opera in print—with coupling and decoupling of the many interlacing affairs like revolving doors. What little story Mailer has to tell is a story of degradation, of decadence. In training his unforgiving eye on this socially privileged bunch and their illicit desires, Mailer stultifies his reader with misanthropy. In a way, Mailer has undertaken to write about the tormenting challenge to be free, American, and happy—by showing how the group of procurers, lushes, casual adulterers, thieves, hypocrites all miss the boat. It’s reminiscent of The Beautiful and the Damned, but all the more wearisome. I have no problem with promiscuous and immoral characters, but Mailer seems too indulgent and heavy-handed.
375 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]