'Tough Guys' points to a fundamental weakness in Mailer's writing; Tough Guys Don't Dance, by Norman Mailer. New York: Random House. 227 pp. $16.95

I think it was F. R. Leavis who remarked that the Sitwells belonged to the history of publicity rather than the history of literature. That Norman Mailer's career resembles a series of publicity stunts has been pointed out before now - even, after a fashion, by Mailer himself.

However regrettable it is that there are writers who seem to spend more energy advertising themselves than working on their craft, the mere fact that a writer becomes a celebrity does not necessarily mean his or her work is bad. What is truly regrettable is that large segments of the reading public - including reviewers and critics, who ought to know better - allow their judgment to be influenced by Madison Avenue-style mythmaking instead of the quality of the writing itself.

Judged solely by his writing - its craftsmanship and intellectual content - Mailer would not, I suspect, have much of a reputation. His early works, more accessible to the general public than the taboo-breaking writings of Henry Miller, William Burroughs, et al., were admired for their shock value by a postwar readership eager to be shocked. Mailer's first novel, ''The Naked and the Dead,'' attained instant notoriety for its use of a certain three-letter word improvised in place of a still more frowned-upon four-letter word. Sometimes it seems as though ever since then Mailer's chief occupation (when not pontificating as befits a Major Writer) has been to write about the words he first employed as expletives.

Asked what she thought of his nonfiction novel, ''The Executioner's Song,'' the late Rebecca West is reported to have said, ''Norman Mailer doesn't strike me as a writer at all.'' Whether or not one is prepared to say of a man who has produced more than 20 books that he is not a writer, there is some justice in another of Dame Rebecca's comments about Mailer's writing: ''It's bunk, nonsense.'' A high tolerance for nonsense (or an inability to detect it) is probably a prerequisite for enjoying Mailer's work.

Even those who may have admired the ambition displayed in ''Ancient Evenings'' are unlikely to be impressed by Mailer's latest (to call it an ''effort'' would be misleading, unless one were referring to that involved in reading it). The story concerns an alcoholic, middle-aged writer who discovers what may be his ex-wife's head in a plastic bag in a marijuana patch he's been cultivating. Unable to recall whether or not he may have killed her (if it is her head in that bag), he tries to reconstruct what happened. A second head turns up, and later, some bodies, along with numerous coincidences and much ''philosophizing'' about coincidence, karma, and Being a Man.

Is it fair to judge a writer by a novel he himself might concede is far from his best? Perhaps not. But ''Tough Guys Don't Dance'' is nonetheless typical of the sensibility that produced the more ambitious books. Indeed, because it is relatively unadorned and unpretentious, this book may be read as a kind of touchstone of its author's values.

''Tough Guys'' features Mailer's usual obsessions - sex, violence, and excrement - but has little to say about these matters. What little it does say is roughly similar to, if somehat less interesting than, the responses given by the least educated males to questions on Kinsey's postwar survey of sexual attitudes. This group of respondents prided themselves on their virility, but indicated, less directly, that they felt sex was somehow dirty. In Mailer's novel, it is the hero's father, an Irish-American bartender, who personifies this outlook. ''Tough guys don't dance'' is one of his slogans. Since the hero is, if anything, less impressive and less likable than his father, it is the father's ethos that emerges - despite some good-natured ribbing about its obvious limitations - as the primary source of values in this novel.

Naturally, these values are presented ironically. (Facile irony has become so prevalent in modern fiction that one begins almost not to notice it except in special cases.) But merely because there is enough distance between an author and his characters for one to be amused by the antics of the other does not mean that the author has placed his characters within the framework of a defining context. Mailer relies on parody and self-parody, which make this an intermittently entertaining book, but which do not provide the perspective found in true satire.

Thus, we are supposed to smile at the title ''Tough Guys Don't Dance,'' yet we are also expected to discern some element of truth in it. And, if we examine it carefully, we may find it more revealing than even its author may have intended. After losing a boxing match, the hero claims he might have won if he had done some fancy footwork (''dancing''). His father disagrees and tells the story of a tough guy who asked his pals to partner his lady friend because dancing didn't accord with his image of himself. The hero ponders the significance of so much profundity, speculating that tough guys don't dance: They face the music head on.

But what else can we learn from this story? For one thing, we may conclude that a ''tough guy'' cannot be a strong man, because a truly strong person would not worry about how ''tough'' he seemed.

Second, the ''tough guy's'' contempt for dancing is not just contempt for fooling around, nor even ''just'' contempt for women, sex, femininity, and effeminacy, but a contempt for anything complicated, subtle, difficult, intellectual, spiritual, or artful. It summons us back to school days and the stereotypical ''tough'' (or stupid) guy's dislike for his ''brainier'' classmates. Anti-intellectualism is an understandable component of American life. ''Tough guys,'' also, don't think. But the stubborn strain of anti-intellectualism in American writers is less explicable, more disturbing. What impels writers like Mailer to embrace the image of the Writer as a hard-drinking, two-fisted, loud-mouthed mugwump? What causes so many fruitless attempts to ''compensate'' for being a man of words rather than a mythical Man of Action?

Can it be the suspicion that tough guys don't write?

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.