Picks and Pans Review: Ancient Evenings

updated 05/16/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Norman Mailer

And here it is! The Mailer book that's been 10 years in the making is set in Egypt, from about 1300 to 1120 B.C. The story spans 180 years with only one hero, a member of the royal family, who undergoes three reincarnations. It begins in a tomb, despoiled by grave robbers, and plods its elaborate, often tedious way through scenes of river travel, an endless banquet (with flashbacks and flashforwards), harem life, soldiering, battles with a lion trained to kill only the enemy, and—as they used to say of epic movies—more! much more! Too much more is the sex. It's difficult to cite the most offensive sexual encounter: the mother with her 6-year-old son, say, or the carefully described male rape, or a dozen other variations. The book has everything but readability, perhaps because Mailer is trying to imitate ancient Egyptian literature with his own embellishments: "And our Pharaoh at this instant did look splendid in His beauty. I could not cease staring at the chiseled wing of His nostril, or the changing bow of His mouth. He was more exquisite to my eyes than a beautiful lady." Unlike the simple stylized murals that survive from this same Egypt, Mailer's imagined land is clotted with words, tortured images, half-baked ideas, pretentious dialogue and, it sometimes seems, every single detail that he dug up. Of course, anything that Mailer writes is of interest, and this was a daring project for the best journalist in America. Too bad that reading it is so unrewarding. (Little, Brown, $19.95)

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