“Everywhere an Oink Oink” is largely a book of (mostly nasty) anecdotes, so let me start with my own second-hand anecdote, one that goes back to David Mamet’s long-ago Chicago days, before he catapulted into fame with such plays as “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which won him a Pulitzer, and the Madonna-graced “Speed-the-Plow.”
Back in the 1970s, a friend of mine then associated with Second City noticed a young man washing dishes at the improv comedy club while dressed in an elegant black turtleneck and tailored, perfectly pleated slacks. Struck by the incongruousness, my friend wondered aloud, “Who is this guy?” It was the pre-celebrity Mamet, supporting himself with a day job while launching his own playwriting career and the nascent St. Nicholas Theater Company, of which he was co-founder. This short-term, blue-collar (or in Mamet’s case, knit collar) job and others like it gave this product of Francis W. Parker School and Goddard College in Vermont not just rent money, but also some much-needed street cred. This came in handy while writing urban-gritty works such as “American Buffalo,” which dropped f-bombs the way other playwrights used commas, thus lending a touch of pseudo-authenticity to melodramas that both sentimentalized and looked down upon working people. It’s all there in my friend’s encounter with the dapper Second City busboy, taking care to visually inform the universe that, while he may be washing dishes at the moment, David Mamet was not a dishwasher.
Who is this guy, indeed? And why—after the Broadway hits, the glittering prizes, the fame, the residuals, the lush life, the hanging out with beautiful people, the reputation still so money-scented it moves a major publisher to put out a regrettable book like this one—is he so darned unhappy? That’s the question that haunts this memoir.
Unhappy and angry. Angry as a crowd at a rally for Trump, Mamet’s idol. Angry as a lubricated barfly who knows only that things ain’t like they used to be, and it’s gotta be somebody’s fault. But whose? The list is long, as Mamet’s grievances are many, if not always clearly articulated.
“I am willing to think ill of anyone, so I suppose I have an open mind,” begins the book, readying us for the rough ride ahead.
Of course, it’s not just “anyone” who bears the brunt of Mamet’s bilious ire. It’s Hollywood producers—or in Mamet’s kookier, more conspiratorial formulation, the “Producer Coterie”—who have made him embittered and dyspeptic, and who presumably are the oink oinks of the title. They are also the same businesspeople who bankrolled the ten movies written and directed by Mamet and the twenty films he scripted that eventually got made. The same people who made him rich and famous, who enabled him to indulge his passion—much in evidence here—for movie-star worship and name-dropping; the same folks who allowed poor little lawyer’s kid David Mamet to pursue his limitless destiny. Although as he himself says of his Hollywood entrance, it was a “demotion”: “I was happy in the theater, in New York, knocking it out of the park; but like all close to the Immigrant Experience, I was always looking to better capitalize my stock and my time.”
And so, striving to monetize his gifts as much as humanly possible, Mamet wends his opportunistic way to La-La Land, only to discover that the producers who control the purse strings there are—sit down before you read this—slick operators motivated by greed, rather than love of Art or admiration for Mamet’s self-evident brilliance. Decades later, nearing the end of a celebrated and fabulously lucrative career, Mamet dwells upon not his moments of achievement and recognition, but rather the snubs and slights that dog every life in showbiz. He describes his situation with customary hyperbolic vulgarity: “the horror of my position as piss-boy [was] balanced by money, spiced by wonder at the absolute inability of those who paid me to understand my scripts.” A hundred kvetchy pages later, he reiterates: “And no one out there, in forty years, liked my scripts.”
Zounds, can this man carry a grudge. One of the many short, shapeless chapters here (punctuated by Mamet’s amateurish cartoons) recounts his ancient quarrel with Roger Dettmer, an occasionally acerbic and largely forgotten theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, who dared pan some of Mamet’s early work at St. Nicholas. With some pride, Mamet recapitulates the long-ago contretemps, which he made personal: “In some interview I referred to Roger Dettmer as ‘an asshole,’ and the comment found its way into print. Dettmer responded, in the Tribune, saying that I’d used a word unsanctioned in polite discourse. I wrote him my apology: that of course he was not an asshole. He was like an asshole.”
What Mamet never seems to understand is that his anecdotes tend to say more about the writer than whomever it is he’s attacking. These targets seldom seem guilty of anything other than not showing the proper deference to a man who wrote a handful of much-praised (perhaps over-praised) plays and scripts, and some real stinkers, too. (These include his latest—and very possibly last—Broadway and London plays, “China Doll” and “Bitter Wheat,” respectively, which were critical disasters on a Chernobyl scale.)
Thus we hear about his meeting with director Neil Jordan, who had recently helmed the massively popular “The Crying Game” and wanted Mamet to rewrite the script for a new project: “I wrote a smashing script. The Producer, someone or other, flew to Cambridge for a meeting between me and Neil Jordan, who flew from Ireland. We were introduced, ‘Hi, hi’ and Neil said, ‘I have some questions about your script.’ I riposted, ‘Then why don’t you go fuck yourself.’ And got up and left.”
After all these years, Mamet still seems to believe that obscenity is the soul of wit. It’s a recurrent motif here, with many tales ending on a note of unprovoked insult. I kept waiting for a follow-up sentence involving an uppercut or right-cross courtesy of the insultee. But apparently, Mamet, the poker-playing, gun-loving macho guy, knows how to pick his victims.
Unrighteous indignation and an inability to hear himself mark every page of this book, which at times sounds less like a memoir than one of those rambling farewell messages discovered too late on the mass shooter’s computer. Mamet’s enemies list is longer than Nixon’s: not just producers who question his impeccable plotting skills, but also actors who insist on, well, acting, as opposed to just “saying the words thoughtfully supplied to them” by Mamet, and the agents and managers (i.e., “parasites,” as is everyone who is not Mamet or a crew person whose paycheck depends upon prompt obedience to Mamet). And then, of course, there are the archvillains of the Mamet cosmos, the “Hollywood liberals” (largely mythical creatures in a milieu more libertarian than liberal), with their noisy attachment to causes such as climate change. In Trumpian fashion, he treats this existential threat as some kind of scam, inflicted by losers to corrupt the motion picture industry and annoy thin-skinned writers. As Mamet explains, “The movies were never a medium for dispensing justice but rather for selling popcorn.” So much for Chaplin and Welles, so much for Jean Renoir and De Sica and Kurosawa, so much for the great documentarians, so much for all the non-hacks who ever shot a frame of film. Hollywood is indeed a business, but part of that business—the part that main chance-obsessed Mamet can’t seem to grasp—is to capture and interpret, for good or ill, the zeitgeist, the cultural and political atmosphere that surrounds and shapes us.
Every page has its poisonous aperçu, its mean-spirited non-insight. Here are just a couple of samples of Mamet as historian, social critic, lover of humanity:
On slavery: “The slaves not only did the fieldwork but were the artisans… But as the slaves were not working for themselves, they did not, as may be imagined, work with the same zeal that inspired Northern laborers. The slaves were supported—at a subsistence level, but nonetheless—independent of their work’s quality or quantity.” Wait—who was supporting whom? Buried within this absurd description of the plantation economy, with its subsidized and hence lazy laborers doing shoddy work, is the slanderous Welfare Queen stereotype.
On homelessness: “The appropriate Los Angeles political entities don’t need to ‘solve the homeless problem’: they simply need to do what they were hired for: to enforce the laws pertaining to Homelessness. Should that enforcement cause the Homeless to go elsewhere, the City Council, etc. will have done its job.” That job being, apparently, to criminalize poverty and to harass the downtrodden, whose very existence is an affront to the sensitive Mamet.
On immigration (and basic decency): “I got thrown out of Williams Sonoma for the following: I’d entered by a parking lot door marked NO ADMITTANCE, PLEASE GO TO THE FRONT ENTRANCE. A young employee called attention to my gaffe. I said, ‘It’s alright, I’m an Illegal Immigrant.’ She said she found that deeply offensive, and I was escorted out. Okay. It was not farting in church, she (and I) each had the joy of our umbrage, but I didn’t get my wife’s requested Jordan Almonds.” Ho ho. How fun it is to denigrate and humiliate the lower orders. Isn’t that what they’re there for?
Why anyone not paid to edit (or review) this book would read it is a mystery, suffering as it does from sins of both commission and omission. Beyond the snark and condescension, its frequent outbursts of resentment and wounded vanity, there’s a philistine anti-humanism and stone-cold cynicism that not long ago would have been found unbecoming in one who presents himself as a major literary figure. But these attributes—together with a radical lack of empathy and self-awareness, not to mention modesty—are the hallmarks of Trumpism, the movement of which Mamet seems to be the house intellectual and poet laureate.
As with Trump, there are hints of an ego so fragile that it can be kept afloat only by the twin mechanisms of constant promotion of self and reflexive denigration of others. Here’s Mamet’s description of the writer-producer relationship: “The actual artist just flat out sees things differently than his bureaucratic, neurotypical opponents.” Surely the neurotypical are no match for Mamet’s superior neurons. Yet it’s the producers, and not Mamet, who call the shots. How can this be?
Mamet actually does understand the reason, explaining that while the screenwriter needs the producers “to get his cow to market, they need him for his cow, that is, his creativity—until it cannot be connected by the fatuous to their expectation of gain.” This is a pretty sharp critique of capitalism, the predominant mode of production in the United States, including cultural production. Producers control Hollywood because they have access to capital, and it is capitalists and not workers—not even highly paid and skilled workers—who make the decisions at the factory.
The possibility that his discontent is the result not of fiendish liberals but of power dynamics inherent to the system that has lavished him with so many goodies is a disturbing one. And so, Mamet’s prose drifts off into the usual grudge-and-grievance territory. It goes nowhere, adding up to nothing, except for a growing question on the part of the reader: Why would a once-lauded author publish a book as hostile and downright toxic as this one, which will not so much burnish his legacy as rubbish it?
By the end of “Everywhere an Oink Oink,” one feels a bit sorry for Mamet, the way—in magnanimous moments—one might feel a twinge of pity for Trump, and for much the same reason. Underneath the ranting and posturing, one senses an inner emptiness, a lingering disappointment. By the evidence of this book, Mamet is well-adjusted to the money-driven industry of which he is a part, forging a personality dominated by competitiveness, self-absorption, and indifference to the perspectives, feelings and dignity of others. So how is it that, having mastered this best of all possible systems, based as it is on the bedrock truth that “nothing in this life is on the level,” things haven’t worked out better? Could it be because art is about more than just being the wisest wise-guy in the room—that it also calls for a touch of humanity?
At war with the world, Mamet wonders why producers—whom he has always seen and treated as enemies and inferiors—aren’t nicer to him and more respectful. And looking back at his own screen and stage oeuvre, perhaps he wonders whether, in pursuing so ardently the bitch goddess Success, he hasn’t betrayed his own muse, who now has returned the favor by abandoning him. All that’s left is this huge whine against the world, this rich man’s entitled cry of impotent victimhood.
In one of the book’s many cockeyed critical observations, Mamet asks: “What was Scott Fitzgerald’s particular and ongoing problem? He wanted to be liked by rich people. He wasn’t fit to puke into the same toilet as Hemingway, whose genius has always been dismissed by dead spirits as ‘too.’”
After this gratuitous attack, Fitzgerald deserves the last word. As he famously said in “The Last Tycoon,” his last, unfinished novel, “There are no second acts in American lives.” As “Everywhere an Oink Oink” shows, Mamet’s own character arc is less conflict and resolution than decline and fall. Looking back on his conventionally successful Hollywood career, Mamet is incapable of feeding himself and readers upon past glories, fond memories, warm friendships. All he can do is eat his heart out at what could and should have been.
“Everywhere an Oink Oink: An Embittered, Dyspeptic, and Accurate Report of Forty Years in Hollywood”
By David Mamet
Simon & Schuster, 256 pages