David Mamet can do what he wants

by Diana Wichtel / 14 April, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - David Mamet can do what he wants

David Mamet. Photo/Getty Images

The tough guy of US writing, David Mamet, brings his machine-gun style to a new novel about the Chicago mob – and to his conversation. 

David Mamet (rhymes with dammit) has lots of stories. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, director, screenwriter, novelist … stories are what he does. There’s one about his friend, the late Shel Silverstein, cartoonist and author of children’s book The Giving Tree, about a boy and an unnervingly masochistic tree.

“He was also a phenomenally successful country songwriter – he wrote for Johnny Cash – and a wonderful playwright. We wrote a movie together,” says Mamet, on the phone from California. “As with any successful artist, he was a complete depressive.

“I said to him one day, ‘Why don’t you cheer up? You’re at the top of every category.’ And he said, ‘I don’t want to be at the top of every category. I want to be a category.’”

Mamet has yet to make the country and western charts. He has put out a couple of books of cartoons. There’s a drawing of a sign at the entrance to a cinema. It reads, “Shoah [no one will be seated during the last four million Jews].” He has also produced ferocious classics of the stage – Speed-the-Plow, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross … His fast, strutting, sweary, street-smart dialogue has earnt its own staccato descriptor: Mamet Speak. He counts as a category, himself.

“Well, thank you,” he says. He has no trouble accepting a compliment, sometimes when one isn’t entirely intended.

“Well, thank you,” he says, when I mention that the behaviour of one character in his new novel, Chicago, is … confronting. Otherwise sympathetic, he kills someone even when he finds he no longer needs to. “That’s right,” says Mamet serenely.

He told his daughter Clara, a writer, about the scene. “I said, ‘He pulled the gun on the guy and he no longer wanted to shoot him.’ She started screaming, ‘Oh Dad, how dare you?’ I said, ‘Let me finish. He shot him anyway.’ And she said, ‘Oh my god, you scared me for a minute.’” He breeds them tough. “Oh, yeah.”

Chicago – the mob, the media, love and revenge, with Al Capone – is his first novel in two decades. He’d been making sketches for years. A book was another matter. “When you get over the exuberance of writing some yummy scenes and start to turn it into a book, it’s never what you expected. If you’re lucky and have a little bit of stick-to-it-iveness and/or pugnacity, maybe it turns out to be something different and perhaps even better than what you expected.”

David Mamet: “Nothing’s going to surprise the audience that doesn’t surprise the author.” Photo/Getty Images

David Mamet: “Nothing’s going to surprise the audience that doesn’t surprise the author.” Photo/Getty Images

Mamet doesn’t lack pugnacity. So how’s the book doing? “Well, curiously it’s going – I’m knocking on wood now – it’s going very, very well.” Cue the sound of wood actually being knocked. “But, you know, my people have been Jewish for about 6000 years, and to a Jew, the only thing more upsetting than bad news is good news.”

Rather than jinx the reviews, he does the verbal equivalent of knocking on wood and tells another joke. “A very successful rock star is in a psychiatrist’s office for his first meeting. At the end of the hour the psychiatrist says, ‘Wait a second. You’re world-famous. You have wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.” The artist says, ‘Yes, but what does it mean when my mother has to live on welfare?’ Isn’t that a great joke?”

It is, invoking the dog-eat-dog world of his 1983 masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross, about cut-throat competition in a Chicago real estate office. In the movie version, even a simple social enquiry – “What’s your name?” – gets this Darwinian reprisal: “F--- you, that’s my name! You know why, mister? You drove a Hyundai to get here. I drove an eighty-thousand dollar BMW. That’s my name.”

Mamet has talked about his debt to Harold Pinter. “It was stuff you heard in the street. It was the stuff you overheard in the taxicab. It wasn’t writerly.” Take this description of the execution of a horse – it’s that kind of novel – from Chicago: “The horse, munching his ‘hay’, that night. O’Banion, his myrmidons bust in, ‘rat tat tat’.”

In real life, Mamet speaks like a semi-automatic weapon wielded by a mobster. One of his three daughters, Zosia Mamet, played motor-mouthed Shoshanna in Lena Dunham’s comedy, Girls. You see where she got it. He’s very amiable. It’s easy to feel a bit rattled and not a good idea to tease him. You might get a terse “oh” or an ominous “mmm-hmm”. It happens when we talk about the reference, in Chicago, to the 1928 execution of murderer Ruth Snyder and to a famous photograph of her strapped into the electric chair. “Oh, did you see the photo?” Mamet asks. I did. I wish I hadn’t, I tease, but his book made me do it. “Oh,” he says.

And don’t go asking literary questions about the persona of the narrator. “That would be me, right? I don’t know. I just kind of write it down.” He’s got a story about Michelangelo. “People asked, ‘How did you create the statue of David?’ He said, ‘I looked at the marble and just took away everything that wasn’t David.’ I thought that was very profound until one day it occurred to me he was saying to his interlocutor, ‘Oh please, knock it off.’” That’s me told. Rat tat tat.

Mamet’s daughter Zosia, second from left, as motor-mouthed Shoshanna in Girls.

Mamet’s daughter Zosia, second from left, as motor-mouthed Shoshanna in Girls.

“I don’t think the book’s trying to tell anybody anything,” he says. “It’s just an entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

If he doesn’t like the process of analysing his process, that’s part of his process. “I always said to kids who wanted to learn about dramatic writing, ‘Nothing’s going to surprise the audience that doesn’t surprise the author.’”

Chicago is peppered with cameos from real life. “Hitchcock said, ‘If you’re going to do a movie about Paris, for God’s sake show me the Eiffel Tower.’ You’re gonna do a play about Chicago gang wars, you got to show ’em Al Capone, got to show them Nails Morton getting kicked to death by his horse, got to show them the St Valentine’s Day massacre and Marshall Field’s son getting shot in a whorehouse.

“So I’m using that as some signposts on my peripatetic way through the highways and the byways of the underworld,” he concludes with a courtly flourish. “If I may.” He’s David effing Mamet. He can do what he likes.

Chicago is full of men of action. To one who must live a lot in his head, that might appeal. “Well, sure. Absolutely. I sit in a dark room by myself 70 hours a week and dream up bizarre stuff. That’s what I do. Of course I imagine myself as a man of action. I’ve got a lot of friends who I’ve worked with for 50 years. When we get together, it’s only, like, one drink and we’re saying ‘dese’, ‘dem’ and ‘dose’, talking about the old days and all the rough jobs we had as kids.”

It’s also part of a literary tradition. “If you look at the writing that came out of Chicago in the 20th century, [it’s] the greatest of American writing.” He reels off a checklist: Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur of The Front Page … “It’s very brawny writing. It’s the women, too. I mentioned Willa Cather; also Nella Larsen and Lorraine Hansberry. Very muscular.” As opposed to writing that came out of New York. “Tom Wolfe and those guys. The East Coast Princeton ethos of Scott Fitzgerald. Who cares? It’s wimpy. ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ as opposed to ‘Who do I have to know to get a drink around here?’”

Chicago. Why that city, why the Capone era? “This is the pond that I was born into. Just as Tolstoy’s grandparents talked about the Napoleonic Wars, so my grandparents lived in the era of Al Capone and the shoot-’em-ups and the shakedowns. This was the myth of Chicago in which we were raised.” Yes, there have been many movies about that era. “Used to be you’d go to Europe in the 60s, 70s, tell them you were born in Chicago and they’d make a tommy gun with their hands and go, ‘Rat tat tat.’ I don’t know that there’s a lot of fiction.”

Chicago is also about the media. It doesn’t come out of it well. “Neither should it. What does come out of it well, I hope, is journalists, down there in the muck and mire. Because the tradition of Chicago writing doesn’t come out of the universities, it comes out of the tradition of Chicago journalism. The guys, and the women too, just got in there and duked it out. Went to the crime scenes and could write a good lede and keep you, as they say, sufficiently interested to turn to page eight and encounter the ad for the carpet sale.”

In Chicago, newspapermen quote Kant over a beer. Our anti-hero – journalist and war veteran Mike Hodge – apparently writes like an angel when he isn’t hunting the murderer of his beautiful girlfriend. “See, I grew up with a bunch of people – I think I’m one of them – who had no formal education but had read everything ever written. That was how I imagined these newspapermen. They’ve seen a lot of life, read everything, and their heads are not muzzied by formalised education. So they were always the great philosophers, in my experience, anyway.”

The book bristles with now-unsayable ethnic slurs. “Well, okay, so what? That’s what I think,” says Mamet. Fortunately I don’t call him un-PC. “I always think it’s dreadful to hear people say, ‘This may not be politically acceptable but …’ That’s, in effect, a Nazi salute. If something is not appropriate, don’t say it, right? And if something is appropriate, say it and stop apologising for it. That’s what I think.”

You won’t die not knowing what Mamet thinks. In 2008, he announced, in the Village Voice, his conversion from “brain-dead liberal” to conservative. In 2012, he wrote The Secret Knowledge. “… an extraordinarily irritating book”, wrote Christopher Hitchens, “written by one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason”.

Asked in the New York Times whether this shift would alienate his public, Mamet said, “When American Buffalo came out on Broadway, people would storm out and say, ‘How dare he use that kind of language!’ Of course I’m alienating the public! That’s what they pay me for.”

Now he muses, “It’s kind of interesting to be blacklisted. But if you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about politics today, because I’m old enough to realise that, say what you will, they’re all a bunch of whores and thieves.” Politicians: the condensed version. “Yeah.”

The world Mamet presents in plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross and now in Chicago is red in tooth and claw, full of people armed with words and other weapons and dangerous. Is that how he sees life? “A lot of life is dangerous, sure, but I’m enjoying it. You gotta keep your wits about you. There’s a great deal of enjoyment to be got from keeping your wits about you, as opposed to hopping on your horse and rushing off in all directions and tearing at your pearls and screaming, ‘We must tell the king.’” Never mind authority. He inhabits a Mamet-ian landscape: the wild west capitalism of Glengarry Glen Ross; the mobs; people just duking it out.

The transgressive language, the punchlines, the sowing of clues like unexploded grenades to be set off later … Mamet started out working at legendary Chicago comedy club Second City. Maybe he picked up pointers. “Oh, yeah, of course it comes from comedy, because the whole idea with comedy is you have to set up the gag. I worked in Second City for a year or two as a busboy and also as a piano player. I was just a kid. I got to see three shows a night, so I got to see how the comics worked and what a seven-minute scene looked like. It was very, very influential.”

Things sound pretty funny chez Mamet. “By the way, I gave Chicago in manuscript form to my son and he read it and said, ‘Dad, this is great. This might actually resurrect your career.’” Such faith in his father. “I know.”

He’s keeping busy. In 1992, he wrote Oleanna, his scalding, controversial play about gender politics. He must have a play for the world of #MeToo. “It’s not impossible. I’ve written a new play on the subject.” It’s about Harvey Weinstein. “Every society has to confront the ungovernable genie of sexuality,” Mamet told the Chicago Tribune. It may be coming our way. “To the other island that has attached itself to your coat-tails down there. The reason I got caught up in the struggle was I looked at myself in the mirror the other day and, uncharacteristically, I thought, ‘Oh you look nice.’ And then I turned myself over to the cops.” Mmmhmm. Can’t wait to see that play. “Oh, good.”

Meanwhile, there’s the book tour. “I’m going back to Chicago.” His stepmother lives there. “My family is all showing up, so I’m going to have little dunce caps made up, little party hats that say ‘Mamet Family Reunion’.”

It’s difficult to tell when he’s joking. Did his political shift really hurt his career? “Yeah, but so what? As Ernest Hemingway said, call ’em like you see ’em and to hell with it.

“The greatest poker adage I know is not did you win or lose but, faced with the same situation, would you do the same thing again? Have I done a lot of things in my life that are foolish? Absolutely. I don’t think writing about politics was one of them.”

As for our complicated age, he has this to say: “Who knows the time in which he lives? Nobody.” Is he optimistic? “Well, I’m having a good time. Kina hora, as we used to say.” It’s a Yiddish expression to ward off the evil eye. Knocking on wood, again.

And counting his blessings. “I’ve got enough to eat. I’m crazy about my family. We just had the Olympics and if you looked at the commercials, that’s a country voting with its feet. Every commercial is a mixed-race couple; there are gay couples, straight couples, black couples …” He saw something he’s never seen. “Which was a young couple and the guy’s got on a yarmulke. Never occurred in American commercials. I was born two years after the Holocaust, so to grow up with that over your head and then to see this after 70 years … Extraordinary.”

It’s time to go. “Got to bring home the bacon.” He signs off with his latest creative conundrum. “I came up with this great title but I can’t get past the title. It’s called I Married an Eskimo by St Anthony of Padua.” That would present some difficulties. “I know. I think I’ve talked myself into a corner.” Leave ’em laughing. At least, I’m pretty sure he’s joking, but who knows the time in which David Mamet lives? Still, he’s enjoying himself. Kina hora.

CHICAGO: A NOVEL, by David Mamet (HarperCollins, $35)

This article was first published in the March 31, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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