What Can We Steal From Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance?


Title of Work and its Form: Tough Guys Don’t Dance, novel
Author: Norman Mailer
Date of Work: 1984
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be found in most cool secondhand bookstores.  I’m willing to bet that list includes Provincetown Bookshop.  (I could easily be mistaken-the time I spent on Cape Cod seems in my memory to have been lived by a character in someone else’s movie, but I seem to recall visiting that store and enjoying my time there a great deal.)  You can purchase the book from your local indie or get it from a much larger indie.

Bonuses: The Norman Mailer Society is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Mr. Mailer’s work.  J. Michael Lennon offers this brief appreciation of Mr. Mailer’s work.  Mr. Mailer was a frequent talk show guest and this documentary was made about him after his death:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Genre

The novel starts on the twenty-fourth morning after Tim Madden’s wife decided she wanted to fly the coop.  Madden is hung over and has a new tattoo on his arm: the name of a woman from his past.  The passenger seat of his Porsche is drenched in blood.  Over the course of the next several days, Madden unravels the mysteries that he only thought began when he met the beautiful rich blond and her ugly husband in his favorite Provincetown watering hole.

That’s right, the book is essentially a high-class pulp novel in the style of Mickey Spillane or Donald Westlake.  Now, I love those kinds of books.  I don’t aspire to the gunplay or liver damage, but isn’t it fun to spend a few hours in a completely different world?  A place in which it’s not unusual to kiss The Dame Who Got Away or to walk into a room and smell evidence emanating from your gun that could put you back in the clink?

The first matter of craft that impressed me about Tough Guys Don’t Dance was the way in which Mr. Mailer attempted to “class up” a genre that is often unfairly maligned by critics.  Okay, a lot of pulp novels are weighed down by cliches and clunky sentences.  Fine.  But STUFF HAPPENS in these books.  The characters are FUN.  There is MEANINGFUL SUSPENSE.  Pulp detective novels are the spiritual forbear of TV programs such as Law & Order: SVU, a program that currently averages eight million viewers each Wednesday night.  How many short stories are read by eight million people?  How many books sell that many copies?  (Gracious; if these numbers are to be believed, Catch-22 has only sold ten million copies!)

I suppose that what I’m urging at the moment is that we all make more of an effort to appreciate genre work and try our hands at branching out from what may be our comfort zones.   Of course, writers are well within their rights to compose whatever works they like.  But how cool would it be if Alice Munro took a crack at a post-apocalyptic science fiction thriller?  What if John Irving woke up one morning and decided to write an epic fantasy poem?  Perhaps it’s my personal preference speaking, but I love it when a great writer uses his or her most powerful gift-imagination-as completely as possible.

Now, what makes Tough Guys Don’t Dance a “high-class pulp novel?”  I would assert that the book sets itself apart on the “literary” side by devoting a lot of time to characterization at minor expense to the laying of plot.  In an Ed McBain book or a Day Keene book, the plot is always chugging along.  Sure, McBain and Keene establish characters (and very cool ones), but Mailer devotes dozens of pages to backstories for Madden and his colleagues.  Still, Mr. Mailer makes the shrewd choice of ending each chapter with a big, important and cool event, a revelation that makes us wonder what will happen next.

Chapter One: “Yet none of these scenarios, nor very little of them, can be true-because when I woke in the morning, I had a tattoo on my arm that had not been there before.”

Chapter Two: “…I did not even know whether it was the head of Patty Lareine or Jessica Pond lying in that grave.  Of course, I also did not know whether I should be afraid of myself, or of another, and that, so soon as night was on me and I tried to sleep, became a terror to pass beyond all notions of measure.”

Chapter Four: “The head was gone.  Just the footlocker with its jars of marijuana remained.  I fled those woods before the spirits now gathering could surround me.”

Here’s the challenge: how do you end a chapter in a way that gets your reader’s pulse pounding while simultaneously stimulating his or her intellect?

What Should We Steal?

  • Break out of your genre safe space and try something new.  Why not dip your toe in the warm waters of crime, science fiction, fantasy or western stories?
  • End your chapters with meaningful developments that advance the plot and will grab the reader on a high and low level.  We read with our minds AND our hearts.  Why not stimulate both?



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