David Mamet is blessed—and cursed—with an obsessively acute ear.
In his plays, films and prose—including Three War Stories his just-published trilogy of novellas concerning the degrading and/or uplifting effects of (often grisly, occasionally sadistic) martial violence on the human character—Mamet hears voices and then retransmits them after dexterous literary processing.
In his politics—which, over time, have crossed the ideological gulch from “brain-dead liberal,” as he once called himself in a noted essay, to rabid right-winger—Mamet also hears voices. They’re the opposite of sweet. He is, in his way, a cynical, macho, writerly version of Joan of Arc.
Mamet’s current creation, the latest in a frighteningly industrious body of work, inhabits the voices, minds and souls of, respectively, an early-19th century naval officer who is captured by pirates, an Army combatant in the American-Indian wars of the late 19th century, and two fast-talking World War II vets who steal an Air Force bomber to transport weapons to the Zionists in the month leading up to Israel’s war of independence. The voices in Three War Stories range from the languid, almost baroque locutions of officers and gentlemen of a bygone age to the “fuck”-strewn patter of two Jewish guys from the big city.
“I got such a pleasure out of writing it—imagining myself into various situations,” says Mamet, himself a Jewish guy from Chicago’s North Side.
“I’m a 65-year-old American boy. My dad, and everyone else’s dad when I was a kid, had just been in the service during World War II. And that was the big mystery to us boys, because no one in that generation ever spoke about the war. And it’s not because they were suppressing something. They just never spoke about it. They figured it was their business and it was over, and they got on with their lives.”
He tells me: “As someone who never served in the military, the question of what goes on in the military and what goes on in war was fascinating to me.”
Mamet is a ravenous, even gluttonous, reader of everything under the sun—from the philosophic musings of Eric Hoffer and John Stuart Mill, to the Talmudic ruminations of Rabbi Hillel, to the pulp fiction of Tom Clancy—an appetite whetted when he was a precocious teenager haunting the stacks of the Chicago Public Library. “I don’t read what I should be reading,” he says. “I never opened a schoolbook in my life. I just couldn’t stand it. But I always read voraciously.”
In this case, his inspiration was famed nautical novelist Patrick O’Brian, author of Master and Commander and 20 other seagoing epics in the Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin series.
“Patrick O’Brian is my favorite writer in the world—he’s a writer like none other,” Mamet says. “His combined work is one of the great works of imagination in English literature. And he didn’t even know what a boat was. He went to the British Museum every day and he read books about the Napoleonic Wars. He invented this phony history, but he was just a genius. I did my research the way Patrick O’Brian did. I just read everything.”
Mamet wasn’t gathering material for any specific project; he was, as usual, simply devouring every morsel. “Over the last 50 years I’ve been reading this stuff. Forever. One day I got to the happy inspiration to start writing some of it. So I did. I wrote one. Then another. Then I thought, ‘Hell, if you write the third one, you probably got a book.’”
And what does he want readers of Three War Stories to take away from his novellas? “I want them to have a good time,” he says. “That’s the beginning and the end, I believe, of any writer’s highest hopes.”
Unlike some belle-lettrists, who labor painfully over every comma and suffer for their art, Mamet—annoyingly enough—talks about his craft as an undiluted delight, something to be ecstatically enjoyed like a fabulous meal. (His work as a playwright, for which he is most acclaimed—winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 1984 drama Glengarry Glen Ross, an American classic that possibly ranks with Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire—is a different experience. “Writing a play is kind of like taking a Dremel tool and sticking it inside your ear every day,” he says.)
Mamet—who currently is in pre-production on Blackbird, a thriller, starring Cate Blanchette and Catherine Keener, that he wrote and plans to direct (his 11th feature film as a director)—spends eight hours a day in his writing studio in Santa Monica, pounding away on one of the 40-odd aging portable typewriters he has stashed away here and there; sometimes he indulges in the sensual pleasure of a fountain pen.
“I’ve got this marvelous pen that I use and fill it up with cartridges, and gorgeous paper. It’s such fun!” he says, noting that one of his favorite pastimes when he owned a country house in Vermont years ago was making his own ink and goose-quill pens. “The goose-quill pens were wonderful,” he says. “The ink wasn’t so successful.”
For a man so genial, richly rewarded, and, by all evidence, genuinely happy with his life, Mamet has a surprisingly dark view of humanity. That remarkable ear of his is attuned to the ultra-high frequencies of sinister voices. He perceives the sounds of evil intent where others detect only well-meaning (if possibly misguided) enthusiasm. Take, for instance, a center-left Democrat like Barack Obama. Where many hear the difference-splitting diffidence of a politician in search of accommodation with his adversaries, Mamet hears the ominous strains of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
“I talk to friends and now mainly ex-friends of mine who were liberals during the ’08 and ’12 elections,” Mamet confides, noting that he voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney, “and I reason with them from my point of view, and I say, in effect, ‘Are you crazy? Don’t you know who this guy is? Don’t you know who these people [members of the Obama administration] are?’ What in their history do they find inconsistent with totalitarianism, or at best statism, or at worst Marxism? They want to take over the government. They don’t care how they do it. You can’t believe a word they say.”
Mamet elaborates: “For God’s sake, let’s all read Leninist doctrine. Leninist doctrine is: find the useful idiot. Tell any lie, and if they believe the big lie, tell them a bigger lie. If they believe that, tell them another lie, because what’s going to happen is after awhile, they’ve listened to so many lies and nodded, now they’re complicit, and they can’t go back and say, ‘Oh my God! What a fool I was!’”
The controversies surrounding Obamacare and the disastrous debut of the new health insurance law are, for Mamet, a perfect illustration of the malevolent deceptions that the president and his allies regularly employ to retain power. When Obama promised repeatedly that citizens who like their health insurance policies will be allowed to keep them, “what he meant was, if you like your policy, you can’t keep it,” Mamet says.
“They don’t want the bill to work,” he continues. “Obviously they didn’t want the bill to work because they didn’t know what’s in the bill. How do I know that? Nancy Pelosi told me! What they wanted to do was have the government take over a huge segment of the American economy on the way to taking over the entire American economy, and have it fail so that the government can then increase its power over its citizenry.”
As evidence for this creepy conspiracy, Mamet triumphantly adduces the problem-plagued rollout of the Affordable Care Act web site. “The Obama campaign has the most sophisticated computer operation in the history of the world,” he says. “In the two elections and the time in between, they didn’t have any problem putting together a computer operation. They just didn’t care. Why? Because failure redounded more to their benefit than success!”
As he spins out these unconventional—some would say outlandish—political theories, Mamet begins to sound like the frenzied real estate office manager in Glengarry Glen Ross, the one who ranted over and over “Always Be Closing!” Or, better yet, he sounds like Glenn Beck, Michael Medved, or any of the other right-wing shock jocks to whom he regularly tunes in. “I listen to all of them,” he cheerfully acknowledges. “I get a kick out of it.”
Yet, for all his bluster, Mamet is difficult to dismiss. After all, this is a man who wrote the prophetic screenplay for Wag The Dog—a satire in which an American president distracts the nation from his sexual indiscretions by declaring war on a small country—well before Bill Clinton fired cruise missiles at Sudan in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When the film proved eerily accurate, “Me, Barry [Levinson, the director], Bob De Niro and Dustin [Hoffman] and Jane Rosenthal, who produced it, we all just walked around with our jaws hanging open,” Mamet recalls. “It was the oddest thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
He knows that many his liberal showbiz colleagues—the ones who bankroll, produce and act in his projects—probably think he’s at least a couple of sandwiches shy of a picnic. “You remember the history of Cassandra, right?” Mamet says. “Remember her curse? The curse of Cassandra was that she was gifted with the power to see the future—but that no one would believe her.”