's Homage to El Loco
is a short story
about the narrator's witness of the Greatness and Shame of a novice bullfighter
. It is from Existential Errands
published in 1972.
Mailer's craft puts the reader inside the story. He describes such simple things so artfully that the details become one's own memory. His genius is his ability to appeal to the most basic desires of his readers. We all want to be good people, and to be judged by others as having lived a worthy life. With this technique, he forces the reader to invest heavily in the fortunes of his characters.
"El Loco" is the derisive name given to a provincial novillero bullfighter by his audiences. Mailer describes El Loco as as having "a funny ugly face with little eyes set close together." He is a clown, brought to the ring by the fight promoters as a source of comic relief for the audience, tired of poor performances during a slow time of year. He is the epitome of the loser we have all secretly thanked God for not being.
For much of the bullfight, El Loco lives up to his reputation as a bumbler and coward. Mailer outlines the varying levels of honor and shame that can be earned by the novilleros through their actions in the ring. Just as El Loco begins to let the fight get get out of his control, he performs an "instant of heaven," a move so outstanding and unexpected that the crowd forgives his general incompetence and awards him the accolades so desired by the young bullfighters. By popular acclaim, El Loco is invited back for two more bulls the following week.
After a few more weeks of brief flashes of brilliance among his general ineptitude, no one is really sure what to make of El Loco. The bullfighting aficionados argue whether he is the worst fighter of the summer or one of the best there ever was. He is both outstanding and terrible. Mailer compares it to getting killed in the lowest ranks of amateur boxing, only to get in the ring with Cassius Clay and outbox him for twenty seconds.
Then, in the climax of the summer, El Loco performs twenty-five increasingly difficult passes and kills the bull in the most spectacular fashion possible. He stands his ground and coaxes the bull run up onto its own death. It is the most bizarre and unbelievable performance anyone has ever seen.
Despite even this performance, El Loco fades into obscurity and is never heard from again. Mailer reflects on the happiness he felt when he saw the most unlikely of characters perform with such unexpected brilliance. It is not just the awe of seeing a job well done, but the understanding that comes from knowing that El Loco can be miserable one moment and transcendant the next. When he is bad, he gives the reader the impression that he himself could do just as well, and when he is good, "the whole human race was good-he spoke of the great distance a man can go from the worst in himself to the best."
In other words, the story that Mailer is telling is not about a hayseed bullfighter who performs above his head, but about the unlimited ability of us all. He tells the reader that no matter how poorly we perform, or how many disadvantages we have, we are all capable of Greatness. A man "cannot be judged by what he is every day, but only in his greatest moment, for that is the moment when he shows what he was intended to be."
I love El Loco for showing me the paradox that exists within myself, and for giving me the realization that no matter what our past or our limitations are, we can strive to and achieve the best.