Book review: JFK: Superman comes to the Supermarket, by Norman Mailer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm

JFK: Superman Comes to the Supermarket
by Norman Mailer

First, I must confess to two prejudices: I am not overly fond of Norman Mailer and I strongly dislike John F. Kennedy.

Still, even I can see how impressive JFK: Superman Comes to the Supermarket is: the tome is huge and visually impressive with gorgeous, oversized photographs - many of which will be new to readers - of the 1960s presidential campaign. However, there is no concealing the fact that the book is strikingly unnecessary.

Aside from the titular essay, the book includes a brief introduction and biographical endnote by Mailer biographer J. Michael Lennon, excerpts from Mailer's The Presidential Papers, sundry timelines, and quotes.

History has already rendered its verdict on Superman Comes to the Supermarket, credited by many with ushering in the era of "New Journalism", but even given the essay's historic import it seems difficult to justify so much fanfare, so many pages, and so much sheer weight just to celebrate one essay.

This criticism is not meant to diminish the importance and influence of the essay. Mailer penned the article for Esquire magazine in 1960 with the intention - as he admitted in The Presidential Papers - of writing "a piece which would help him [JFK] get elected".

Superman is one of the earliest examples of an author applying techniques most often reserved for fiction writing to non-fiction essays - writing with a defined point of view, a narrative dependence on dialogue, organising the story as a series of distinct scenes - a method exaggerated in the book by dividing the essay into titled sections.

Despite all that, the historic and cultural import of the essay itself is underexplored in JFK: Superman Comes to the Supermarket, A Pointed Portrait of a Political Campaign. The book doesn't seem to know what it's about, a confusion reflected in the overloaded title.

The best thing about JFK are the photos. It would be going too far to say they show JFK - a man whose image was crafted - as we have not seen him before, but that doesn't detract from the power of the images. The large-format photos are imbued with an intimacy and a sense of time and place that contrast nicely with the sprawling essay. The best shots are not of Kennedy but of the campaign itself, of his supporters in small American towns.

These images show the human mechanics of democracy in what was perhaps a simpler, though no less politically impassioned time, and they are powerful.

If the editors had expanded the project to include a more in-depth analysis of JFK the man, or Mailer in what was an extremely tumultuous time in his life, or the at-times bizarre relationship between the two "great" men, it would be much better for it. An examination of what the essay meant to journalism would have been best of all.

As it is we are left with a lovely book that sacrifices intellectual heft in favour of literal heft.