Picks and Pans Review: Tough Guys Don't Dance

UPDATED 09/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer writing a mystery is like Julia Child making a hamburger. But there are hamburgers and there are hamburgers, and this is one spectacular hamburger. At 229 pages, it is certainly a slight work by Mailerian standards; by his standards, in fact, it is a matchbook-cover note. But he makes every word count, like a master knife thrower zinging stilettos in a circle around your head. Vaguely reminiscent of Mailer's 1965 novel, An American Dream, this book is set on Cape Cod, where a bartender-novelist, Tim Madden, is grieving because his wife has just left him. The opening sequence, in which Madden ruminates over the return of his smoking habit, is wonderful: "My clearest recollection is yawping over that first cigarette, strangling the smoke down. Later, after four or five, I was sometimes able to inhale in peace, thereby cauterizing what I had come to decide (with no great respect for myself) must be the wound of my life." Madden soon stumbles upon the severed heads of two women, uncertain whether he, in a drunken stupor, might have done the severing himself. He also has to take into account a self-righteous police chief, an ex-lover, a blond real estate woman from California and her gay lover, his own wife's ex-husband and her current black lover, a tattoo artist who also holds séances, his father and a couple of local thugs. The plot is intriguing, but the real fun is in the writing—precise, mean, funny and often faintly self-mocking. Of a local woman, Madden says, "She looked like a weed. Yet she wrote good poetry. On reading what little she would show, I had discovered that she was as cruel as a ghetto rapist in the brutality of her concepts, quick as an acrobat in her metaphors, and ready to slay your heart with an occasional vein of feeling as tender as the stem of honeysuckle on a child's mouth." This may not be great literature, but it is a great writer having a grand time and offering one to his readers too. (Random House, $16.95)

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