Howard Jacobson: When in Houston, there is little else to do but think of death, Norman Mailer and shopping

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The Independent Online

It's all obituaries these days. This time Norman Mailer. I'm in America, on a reading tour, when I hear he's dead, though not New York where you need to be to think properly about Mailer. I'm not in Utah either, the other Mailer-associated place for me, on account of The Executioner's Song, his superb "reality" novel about Gary Gilmore, the Utah-born murderer who fought against his own stay of execution.

The greatest of ironies – having civil liberties lawyers fighting to keep you alive when all you want is your own retributive extinction, preferably by means as violent as your crime. I thought it prophetic when I read it years ago, foreseeing a time when the innate meddlesomeness and intrusiveness of civil liberties and human rights would ensure that our lives ceased to be our own to take or to forgo, and I still don't doubt that that's what's waiting. Mark my words – or mark Mailer's – we are all forfeit to human rights.

The Executioner's Song caused consternation in some places when it was published for making Gilmore "almost" sympathetic. Raskolinikov is one thing. He's literature. And Russian. Gary Gilmore is another. People forget that that was how literature got started: by entering into the minds of criminals and tyrants. It's why we go on reading, if we read at all – to make connection with some part of ourselves that isn't governed by civic considerations and sympathies. Thus, when we hear that men are reading novels less and history more, we should worry for the completeness of our imaginations.

History is only ever half the story, and the not so interesting half at that. Don't believe them when they tell you Jane Austen was pissing in the breeze writing about balls in country houses when she should have been addressing the Napoleonic Wars. You could just as reasonably argue that the ones pissing in the breeze were those fighting the Napoleonic Wars.

A more ambitious novelist than Jane Austen, Mailer put his gifts to love and war. I suppose because the novel has again become the domain of women, policed by those who dictate what attitudes to women a novelist may take, Mailer ceased to be a writer for our times. He would probably have said that was why he died. He often wrote about our bringing on our own diseases. We gave ourselves cancer, I remember pontificating in the days I was under Mailer's spell. Illness came to us through our consciousness and thereafter began to poison our bodies.

Poppycock you might think, but no more poppycock than blaming obesity, anorexia, chocolate, lack of chocolate, too much alcohol, too little alcohol, sitting around doing nothing, running around doing too much. We need a few macho novelists telling us that we manufacture illness out of the infirmity of our spirits, or are murdered by the meanness of the times.

I'm in Houston having these thoughts, if you want to know. In the Galleria – the swankiest mall in Texas – leaning on a rail outside Armani watching lithe young Texans ice skate. Don't know why ice skaters touch me, but they do. It's as though they exist in some other dimension, freed from friction and therefore not really alive at all. This is about my third visit to a shopping mall in as many days. It's what I do between readings: I shop. Hard to picture Mailer shopping, but you never know. Macho has its surprises.

In fact, there was something charming and even boyish about Mailer's macho – if you rule out his knifing the odd wife. I encountered it only superficially, I admit, at the occasional literary party, where he'd tell an admiring group of us how the last time he'd met Muhammad Ali neither of them had the strength to knock the other about as they used to, so they'd circle about each other pretending to land punches but being careful never to come within a yard of making contact. Sad – tough guys getting old. I'm not thinking about myself. I was never a tough guy. Which is also sad – someone who wasn't a tough guy leaning on a rail outside Armani in a shopping mall in Texas watching people ice skate and wondering what it all means: getting old, losing power and puissance that you never had.

The last occasion I talked to Mailer was at the Ivy. We were both dinner guests of Melvyn Bragg. That must sound like name-dropping, but I'm in a shopping mall in Houston, thinking of better times. Not that I'm having a bad time exactly; there are worse ways of spending your life than reading to Americans coast to coast, even if they're not hanging out flags for me in every city, or giving me their breasts to sign the way they did Dylan Thomas, if rumour is to be believed.

He was on sticks, walking badly. Mailer, that is, not Dylan Thomas. "Oh, look," someone said, "there's Robert Hughes." Hughes too was on sticks, walking badly. He'd just been involved in a serious road accident in Western Australia. Mailer looked up and, seeing Hughes, rose with difficulty from the table. Seeing Mailer, Hughes did the same. They walked to greet each other – the last of the prizefighter novelists, the last of the prizefighter art critics. The two toughest men with words left standing. Then, miracle of miracles, they both dropped their sticks and made the final 10 yards unassisted, their limbs grown firm and straight, neither one prepared to acknowledge weakness in the presence of the other.

As I'm in Houston and it suits my mood, I head down to Rothko's Chapel. The taxi driver's never heard of Rothko's Chapel. He wonders if I wouldn't rather go to the Galleria. When he gets lost I give him the number of the chapel to ring for further instructions. "How do I get to you ma'am?" he asks the woman who answers the phone. "Depends where you're coming from," she says. It's the big question. Where are we coming from? Search me. I know only where we're going to.

Rothko killed himself not long after the chapel was completed. So it's not just novels that get men into trouble. You have 14 canvases to meditate on in the chapel, all black or plum, and if you're so inclined you'll discern God's likeness or intentionality in the brushstrokes. Rothko famously admonished an interviewer who marvelled at the beauty of his colour harmonies: "I'm not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom."

Doom it is, then. You write, you paint, you die by your own hand or because the world has no more use for you. Alternatively, if you're man enough, you shop.