Introducing himself in the third chapter of The Fight (Little, Brown, $7.95), Norman Mailer reflects upon what has in recent years increasingly become his favorite subject: "Now, our man of wisdom had a vice. He wrote about himself. Not only would he describe the events he saw, but his own small effect on events. This irritated critics. They spoke of ego trips and the unattractive dimensions of his narcissism. Such criticism did not hurt too much. He had already had a love affair with himself, and it used up a good deal of love. He was no longer so pleased with his presence. His daily reactions bored him.... His mind, he noticed, was beginning to spin its wheels...."
Evidently Mailer's trip to Za√Øre last year for the Ali-Foreman fight was not merely a journalistic assignment undertaken to rake in money, but an attempt to get himself into artistic shape. The Fight strongly suggests that he did not succeed. This is a curiously fiat, offhand book—a case of Mailer going through the motions, or, to use his own description, spinning his wheels.
Mailer has been following fights for some time, as well as engaging in occasional unscheduled bouts of his own, and he fancies himself an authority on pugilism. Combine that with his roundly celebrated (mostly by himself) hangups on race, and the Ali-Foreman fight would seem to have been a natural for him: not only did it pit one mighty black fighter against another, but it was staged in the heart of Joseph Conrad's darkness, the former Belgian Congo.
Though Mailer tries mightily to dress up the fight with all manner of mythic, historical and folk-cultural finery, what he ends up with is...well, a fight. Of the book's 239 pages, 177 are exhausted before the first punch is thrown ("...a tentative left. It came up short"), and precious little in those 177 pages lends substance to Mailer's view that this was not just a fight, but a collision between "vital forces," which he defines as follows: "N'golo was a Congolese word for force, for vital force. Equally could it be applied to ego, status, strength or libido. Indubitably did Ali feel deprived of his rightful share. For 10 years, the press had been cheating Ali of n'golo. No matter if he had as much as anyone in America, he wanted more. It is not n'golo you have, but the n'golo you are denied that excites the harshest hysterias of the soul. So he could not want to lose this fight. If he did, they would write up the epitaphs for his career, and the dead have no n'golo. The dead are dying of thirst—so goes an old African saying. The dead cannot dwell in the n'golo that arrives with the first swallow of palm wine, whiskey or beer."
It would be nice to think that there was a smile on Mailer's face as he wrote such silly Hemingwayisms as "the dead have no n'golo," but he seems to be serious throughout, even when he horrendously dangles a modifier: "A wise man from Miami, the banks of the Za√Øre were not for Angelo."
That, to put it as charitably as possible, is sloppy writing. There is a lot of sloppy writing in The Fight, a book that is a self-indulgent diversion for the writer and a bore for the reader.