Close to sixty years ago, Stanley Rinehart, the head of a publishing house named Rinehart, let Norman Mailer know that while they had accepted the novel that he was under contract to write for them, they wanted time for second thoughts. A few days later they told him that they were declining The Deer Park. The reason was ... well, there was talk of trash, obscenity, vulgarity, and it being no good. But it’s often wise to let such rash feelings degrade with time. Sixty years later, it is more natural to conclude that Stanley Rinehart took his decision because The Deer Park is probably the best novel ever written about the movie business. Or just a hell of a book. Some publishers (not all) are where they are to guard against such things.
The title refers to the French eighteenth century and an aristocratic playground, “that gorge of innocence and virtue in which were engulfed so many victims who when they returned to society brought with them depravity, debauchery and all the vices they naturally acquired from the infamous officials of such a place.” That is from the epigraph to the novel. A page later, the deer park is reassessed for the 1950s: “In the cactus wild of Southern California, a distance of two hundred miles from the capital of cinema as I choose to call it is the town of Desert D’Or. There I went from the Air Force to look for a good time. Some time ago.”
The storyteller is Sergius O’Shaugnessy, a brilliant and beautiful fake, a blue-eyed blond with decorations on his uniform from the Korean war. He has $14,000 won in a poker game in Tokyo, and he uses it to suggest he is from wealth and family, instead of an orphanage. He goes to Desert D’Or as a kind of Candide, or an Ishmael going to sea, and as a kid who may sell his life story (or even his life) to the picture business. He is not a million miles from Mailer himself, who was not six foot one, blond, or handsome but who had had his war and made a victory of it called The Naked and the Dead (1948). In the early 1950s, he was one of the most self-confident and insecure geniuses in America, and he was hanging around Hollywood for material. He met Shelley Winters in a bar, told her she was a good actress and ought to try out for the part of the factory girl in the upcoming film of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. (It would be called A Place in the Sun, and it got Winters an Oscar nomination.) Mailer was absorbing Hollywood.
Sergius is soon a figure at Desert D’Or, which is Palm Springs, though it often feels like Las Vegas. He meets people: Dorothea O’Faye, a onetime singer, a hostess, and a connection. What is a connection? You may begin to discern Mailer’s grasp of Hollywood in his feeling for those who have no real job but who are vital because they link others, learn secrets, and measure out how to use them. Dorothea has a son, Marion Faye, an intellectual pimp, the most frightening character in the book—“he had an arrogance which was made up of staring at you”—and someone who loves the desert because the end of the world is being rehearsed there. That means nuclear testing, at a time when tourists in Vegas were up at dawn on the hotel roofs to see the tests a hundred miles to the north. But the apocalypse means gambling, too, and the infections known as madness, cynicism, and success as they operate in Hollywood. Nathanael West, in The Day of the Locust, had known that the millions of failures in Los Angeles were at the end of their tether and dangerous. But Mailer recognized that the same condition affected the far smaller band of successes.
It is the close observation of these broken successes that makes The Deer Park. There is Charles Eitel, one of the best directors in town, a humane and intelligent man, with fine ambitions once, yet crippled by the inescapable need to stay successful. He takes up with a beautiful woman who is raw with need inside, Elena Esposito, one of Mailer’s finest female creations. Eitel loves her and her comfort, but he is too weak to do the dumping he knows is sensible. He has a similar indecisiveness with the House Un-American Activities Committee—hence his name. You could say he is Elia Kazan or Nicholas Ray, but he is a remarkable portrait of American compromise.
Eitel has been married previously to Lulu Meyers, a young star of the day, and a teasing caprice. Now Sergius falls for her, aware that, as with any movie star, she only loves and gives herself to the strangers in the dark. Sergius has good instincts about that sort of alienation. As a pilot, he learned it looking at the flowering explosions of bombs he had dropped and realizing that victims were too far away—on a screen, if you like—to care about.
And then there is the studio boss, Herman Teppis. One of the episodes that most upset Stanley Rinehart was when Teppis followed his afternoon office routine. A contract bit-player, a pliant woman named Bobby, comes to the office. She sits on his lap and he establishes that she is discreet. But then he opens his legs, and she drops on the floor and opens her mouth. He calls her his “darling darling” and sends her away and then: “Teppis ground out the cigar. ‘There’s a monster in the human heart,’ he said aloud to the empty room. And to himself he whispered, like a bitter old woman, close to tears, ‘They deserve it, they deserve every last thing that they get.’ ”
No one else knew Hollywood well enough in 1954 to feel the pulse of a suave tyranny that needs to take revenge on the people it has enslaved. No one could describe it as directly as Mailer. Of course, he was tempted himself. He was a sexual adventurer and a novelist with nagging anxieties about whether or not to plunge into movies. By the late 1960s, he was making his own films, strange, violent indies like Beyond the Law and Maidstone. He was also, always, a penetrating filmgoer possessed of insights into the fantasy of movie that not many professional critics understood.
The Deer Park may be Mailer’s most usefully old-fashioned and controlled novel. It was ahead of its time in what it knew about movie people, and it was edgily close to what a Rinehart thought was indecent. But as a constructed story and as a portrait of a group, it is superbly detached and balanced. You don’t get that headstrong adrenaline rush that could sometimes sweep Mailer astray. When Rinehart turned the book down (it was eventually published by Putnam without any prosecution), Mailer revisited his own text as a savage editor and made it more taut. He talks about this very well in Advertisements for Myself, which is still a handbook that any would-be writer should keep in his pocket.
For people who want to make movies—big American movies—and who will go to Hollywood (if they can find it), I can only say read The Deer Park, and don’t be deterred just because it’s so old. There are also movies from that moment that will still take your breath away: Kiss Me Deadly, Sweet Smell of Success, The Night of the Hunter, East of Eden, Men in War, Run of the Arrow. Equally, if you are strong enough to be warned about how your soul risks being made toxic in the picture business, you should read The Deer Park. Don’t be too alarmed. There is a respite. Mailer knew how terrible a destiny it was to make movies, but he admitted that it was irresistible, too.
Near the end of the novel, Sergius imagines a conversation with Eitel that captures not just the desperate addiction to movies, but the tormenting challenge to be free, American, and happy. The whole book is as good as this:
And in the passing fire of his imagination, he made up my answer across the miles and had me say good-bye to him, “For you see,” he confessed in his mind, “I have lost the final desire of the artist, the desire which tells us that when all else is lost, when love is lost and adventure, pride of self, and pity, there still remains that world we may create, more real to us, more real to others, than the mummery of what happens, passes, and is gone. So, do try Sergius,” he thought, “try for that other world, the real world, where orphans burn orphans and nothing is more difficult to discover than a simple fact. And with the pride of the artist, you must blow against the walls of every power that exists, the small trumpet of your defiance.”
David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition (Knopf).