THE MYSTERY OF NOVELISTS

Woods navigated the yacht alone in a race across the Atlantic Ocean, an experience he later wrote about. This year, he plans to fly the airplane around the world and write about that experience, too.

Woods' personal style is so much more elegant than that of most writers.
I remember Norman Mailer from the streets of Chicago and Miami and the rough and tumble of the political conventions of 1968 and 1972.

I remember Mailer coming to Chicago to testify for the defense of those accused of starting the riots in Chicago in what became known as the Conspiracy 7 trial.

I felt I had to come here to testify for the defendants," Mailer said, because I felt I deserted everyone in Lincoln Park when the cops came down to beat them up.

I should have stayed with them, but I had a deadline to meet for a magazine piece I was writing about the convention. If I got thrown in jail, I'd miss my deadline." I remember Mailer stepping off the stand. He has praised the defendants and blamed the Chicago police for the battles in which hundreds were injured.

There was silence in the packed courtroom for an instant. And then every one of the defendants jumped up from their chairs and rushed toward Mailer. While the judge pounded his gavel angrily, the defendants hugged Mailer furiously.

I remember, too, something Mailer wrote about writing and courage.
Booze, pot, too much sex, too much failure in one's private life, too much attrition, too much recognition, too little recognition, frustration.

Nearly everything in the scheme of things works to dull a first-rate talent. But the worst probably is cowardiceÏas one gets older, one becomes aware of one's cowardice, the desire to be bold which once was a joy gets heavy with caution and duty.

And finally there's apathy...it doesn't seem too important to be a great writer." Like Woods, Mailer has also been known to hang out in Elaine's.

But his lifestyle is intemperate and fierce. He has been married so many times, most have lost count as to whether the total is five or six. Many years ago, he even stabbed one of his wives.

I cannot imagine Woods and Mailer having a calm conversation about the length of Harlot's Ghost.

The ever-so-elegant Woods also differs markedly from Nelson Algren, the first novelist to win the National Book Award.

I always remember a particular meeting with Algren. It was in a squalid and dingy bar called O'Rourke's on Chicago's near north side.

O'Rourke's was the kind of place where nobody wiped up spilled beer and so you were always squishing through giant pools of the stuff.

Algren, a medium-size guy with sparse hair standing straight up, was sitting in a side booth. He was already famous in the gossip columns for being the lover of Simone de Beauvoir and for The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side. Both novels had already been made into films.

Next to Algren was a great, hulking guy who probably stood at least four inches above six feet.

Algren glared at me. He always pretended to hate reporters unless they were paying for his drinks.

His friend disliked reporters, too, but had a better reason. It turned out he was serving life in Statesville prison for killing a Chicago cop. In those days, it wasn't terribly unusual for a lifer to be given a weekend pass.

Algren was fascinated by the criminal class. He was spending the weekend with this cop killer to get background for a novel.

For years, Algren had spent time haunting police lineups. He used them as a writing school.

As he told me about it, I could picture him doing it.
Algren, always shabbily dressed, stood in the dark with the other victims of robbery and assault. He stared and listened to the criminal types who were lined up and questioned while the spotlights blinded their eyes.

It was a way I had of developing the speaking style of guys about to go into the joint," Algren said. I simply put myself in a position to hear them talk. I used the police lineup for years. The coppers finally stopped me.

The card I used for admittance got raggedy as hell. It was pasted here and there and you couldn't read it anymore. A detective stopped me at the door and said, `What happened, you mean you're still looking for the guy?'

This was like after seven years and I said: `Hell, yes, I lost 14 dollars.'
So he let me go in one more time." I asked Algren about his experience in Hollywood when Frank Sinatra played the lead in The Man With the Golden Arm. Algren hated the film.

He gave me a wry grin. I didn't last long," he said. I went out to Hollywood for a thousand a week, and I worked Monday, and I got fired Wednesday. The guy who hired me was out of town Tuesday."

Algren never lost his fascination for underworld characters. In the last years of his life, he moved to a run-down apartment in Paterson, New Jersey.

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