An American Dream is occasionally compelling, but it ultimately proves to be a messy train-wreck of a novel. Mailer heaps lurid details on top of a convoluted plot and an eccentric cast of characters who cross paths in unlikely ways, but the threads of the story never manage to pull together.
Stephen Rojack is an ex-politician, war hero, and public intellectual who murders his wife, and who in the aftermath goes on a bizarre rollercoaster through the gutters of Manhattan, a journey which leads him to some surprising revelations.
In reading An American Dream I often felt that the novel was a sort of experiment in Mailer's eyes; several elements appear that he would revisit in other novels. He again looks through the eyes of a killer in Executioner's Song, and he writes about spies, gangsters, and JFK again in the Harlot's Ghost, his excellent epic fictionalized story of the CIA.
There are a couple of sterling moments in which Mailer's skill as a writer shines. In the first, Rojack, the protagonist, recounts an experience rushing a German machine gun nest. Mailer does a perfect job of painting the out-of-body otherworldliness of the moment. The second occurs when Rojack approaches a woman in a bar and ends up in a tense standoff with the gangsters who are accompanying her. Both instances are excellently drawn sketches of violence, one carried out through action, the other threatened but unrealized.
A few strong passages notwithstanding, this is an unfocused under-edited novel full of opaque philosophizing and flat characters. An interesting experiment, but it doesn't quite work.