No joke. This happened as a result of an October 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war. I find I had misremembered this passage. I recalled Mailer as being much less modest, as not acknowledging that technical linguistics used mathematical methods that might be beyond him at that stage of his life, no matter how much time he put into it. (I haven't actually read all of the technical works by Chomsky in the references below.) I have always liked Mailer's reporting and essays better than his novels, an opinion that I probably share with many and that he did not appreciate.
"Definitive word came through. The lawyers were gone, the Commissioners were gone: nobody out until morning. So Mailer picked his bunk. It was next to Noam Chomsky, a slim-featured man with an ascetic expression, and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity. Friends at Wellfleet had wanted him to meet Chomsky at a summer before - he had been told that Chomsky, although barely thirty, was considered a genius at MIT for his new contributions to linguistics - but Mailer had arrived at the party too late. Now, as he bunked down next to Chomsky, Mailer looked for some way to open a discussion on linguistics - he had an amateur's interest in the subject, no, rather he had a mad inventor's interest, with several wild theories in his pocket which he had never been able to exercise since he could not understand what he read in linguistics books. So he cleared his throat now once or twice, turned over in bed, looked for a preparatory question, and recognized that he and Chomsky might share a cell for months, and be the best and most civilized of cellmates, before the mood would be proper to strike the first note of inquiry into what was obviously the tightly packed conceptual coils of Chomsky's intellections. Instead they chatted mildly of the day, of the arrests (Chomsky had also been arrested with Dellinger), and of when they would get out. Chomsky - by all odds a dedicated teacher - seemed uneasy at the thought of missing class on Monday.
On that long unwinding passage from the contractions of the day into the deliberations of the dream, Mailer passed through a revery over much traveled and by now level ground where he thought once more of the war in Vietnam, the charges against it, the defenses for it, and his own final condemnation which had landed him here on this filthy blanket and lumpy bed, this smoke-filled barracks air, where he listened half-asleep to the echoes of Teague's loud confident Leninist voice, he, Mailer, ex-revolutionary, now last of the small entrepreneurs, Left Conservative, that lonely flag - there was no one in America who had a position even remotely like his own, who else could indeed could offer such a solution as he possessed to such a war, such a damnable war. Let us leave him as he passes into sleep. The argument in his brain can be submitted to the reader in the following pages with somewhat more order than Mailer possessed on his long voyage out into the unfamiliar dimensions of prison rest..." -- Norman Mailer (1968).
- Noam Chomsky (1959). On certain formal properties of grammars, Information and Control, V. 2: pp. 137-167.
- Noam Chomsky (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, MIT Press.
- Noam Chomsky (1969). American Power and the New Mandarins, Pantheon Books.
- Noam Chomsky and M. P. Schützenberger (1963). The algebraic theory of context-free languages, in Computer Programming and Formal Systems, North Holland.
- Norman Mailer (1968) The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, New American Library.