Friday, February 01, 2013

David Mamet and the Tragedy of the Literary Tough Guy

cross-posted from Dagblog

So David Mamet decided that he had to weigh in on gun laws, and tell everyone that everyone should have lots of guns all the time. This has required him to publish various claims that are not true, or defy common sense, or are painfully obviously not true, such as his weird assertion that the Founding Fathers were "not politicians." Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan have efficiently excellent takedowns. But let me say a few words, without excusing him, about the difficult position Mamet is in.

David Mamet got famous as a tough-guy writer. They're a relatively rare breed, but they do better because of their very scarcity, and the literary establishment is always happy to make room for them. Writers aren't generally very tough or macho, spending hour after hour at your desk fine-tuning sentences doesn't make you seem any tougher, and writing of the highest quality is pretty scarce already. So when a writer turns up who is both doing original and powerful work (and Mamet has written some wonderful plays), and  also projecting an "authentic," streetwise masculinity, that combination is an extremely rare and valuable commodity. He becomes enormously marketable, and lots of other writers, who don't necessarily feel so streetwise or authentic themselves, are eager to embrace him. Hemingway basically invented this role for the 20th century, while Norman Mailer and others tried to play it. The early press coverage of James Frey, before he became exposed as a crude fraud, set him up for this special form of fame. And Mamet, writing compelling drama about con men and other street characters in persuasively authentic language, was embraced by a bookish establishment that is perennially afraid of losing touch with the real world. There's always a place of honor for writers like Mamet who can turn in great work while also Keeping It Real.

But in the long run, being the Literary Tough Guy almost always becomes a trap. If your job is to Keep Things Real for literary publishing types by being an Authentic Voice from the Street and whatnot, it's impossible to keep that job up after twenty or thirty years of success and acclaim. Nobody's an Authentic Voice from the Street after twenty-five years of paying capital gains taxes. It's just not an option. At a certain point, you're a guy who started out a tough newcomer decades back, and spent those decades in cushioned comfort. But Tough Guy persona, for whatever reason, doesn't have any clear exit path, no route to some other recognizable literary persona. There's no obvious second act except for has-been. So the Literary Tough Guy is forced, more and more as he ages, to continue asserting his toughness, to posture as the kind of person he started out by more or less being. It's not a fraud exactly, but it is a pose, and it becomes stiffer and more exaggerated the further the Tough Guy gets from the street.

Hemingway, who played the Literary Tough Guy role better than anyone, was also one of its biggest victims, who spent his last twenty years as a prisoner of his celebrity. He couldn't explain to his third wife, the great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, why he didn't want to go to Europe to cover World War II, because he couldn't admit he was scared. And he spent his last years in an increasing series of insistently macho poses that he could manage while keeping out of any personal danger. By the end he was simply an aging gentleman who enjoyed the company of bullfighters. And maybe two-thirds of Norman Mailer's weird behavior over the years comes down to his need to preserve his expired Tough-Guy cred.

And so Mamet is in a familiar position: the aging Tough-Guy writer who now needs to give a theatrical performance of his toughness and "authenticity." That position requires him to make gestures that communicate the idea of toughness without requiring him to exercise any. Speaking out angrily for "gun rights" is tailor-made for his needs. It allows him to play Tougher Than Thou, and do it on the cheap. David Mamet is not actually worried about crime. He can afford doormen and security systems and valet parking. He's not going to get mugged on the street because he hasn't been on the street in years. What David Mamet is worried about is losing his reputation, no matter how much he has to embarrass himself to keep it.

It must be embarrassing when the pose leads a Tough Guy to be one-upped on the realities of, say, urban crime by someone like Andrew Sullivan, who makes no pretense of toughness or machismo. But that's the truth: Sullivan is currently a better witness to what it's like to live in a city with a high crime rate, and a neighborhood with a high crime rate, than someone like Mamet is. We've reached the sorry point where David Mamet no longer has any idea what it's like to actually live in Chicago.

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