Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Miami and the Siege of Chicago by Norman Mailer

Well, first of all, what a lot of memories were stirred by this book! I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, my mom was raised in Mayor Daley's backyard (so to speak), and I was 20 years old (and pretty wild) in 1968 when the events written about occurred. It was a crazy time, and scary, and what's scarier is that the more things seem to have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Only the names have changed. We are in the midst of social and economic crises ~ as we were in '68. We are in the middle of a very unpopular war ~ as we were in '68. The only difference is that the kids today don't seem to be very concerned about much of anything except having fun, looking good, and getting ahead. So different from the youth of the late '60s/early '70s. In some ways that's not so bad ~ according to Mailer, we were a romantic, highly unpractical bunch, but we sure were idealistic. We were in-your-face rebels. We were prepared to die for the cause.

As for the book itself ~ Mailer seldom wrote "just the facts, ma'am." Instead, he would take off on flights of literary ecstasy, as if he had written those bits while high on speed with a few shots of bourbon as chasers, and I found myself struggling to comprehend and often had to reread whole paragraphs to get the gist of what he was saying. His frequent references to himself as "the reporter" got a little tedious after awhile, and I had to steel myself to get past them. The bouts of self-castigation and soul-searching in which he engaged during those days are described in gory detail, too raw and brutal to be easy reading, but they have made me want to read a biography about the man.

I loved the descriptions of Chicago and its citizens. When he wrote about the riots and the police brutality, I trembled inside, as if it were happening now, all over again. The descriptions of his fellow intelligentsia of the movement and the crazy lengths to which the radicals wanted to take us (though I remember thinking it all made perfect sense back then) were hysterical. And the part where he describes his inspection of the troops and later examination of the barbed-wire covered vehicle was priceless. What they did (or attempted to do) to him for his minor defiance was pretty surrealistic. No wonder, having grown up in that milieu, I still don't like cops.

The first part about Miami and Nixon was interesting but not gut-clenching. It was in the second half, when he wrote about what happened in Chicago, that he took my breath away. Toward the end, I felt like I was on a runaway express train, a juggernaut racing toward a terrible plunge over the cliff, unable to stop myself from turning the pages.

This wasn't an easy book, but it was timely and well worth reading, if for no other reason than the historical political insights, but there is so much more here for anyone willing to make an effort.

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