Saturday, November 17, 2007

Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

Norman Mailer died last Saturday, at the age of 84. He had a good run, nearly sixty years as a published author, which is amazing. He was one of my favorite writers, and I will miss him. We need writers like Mailer, fearless men and women who aren't afraid of looking foolish. Okay, so Mailer did some crazy things in his life. He made experimental films, he bit off part of Rip Torn's ear, he stabbed his wife with a pen-knife, he argued for the release of convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott, who killed again once he was released, he took on feminists, he ran for Mayor of New York City, he smoked pot when only jazz musicians did, he had an ego the size of all outdoors. Still, he was never boring. Mailer thought of himself as the greatest writer of his generation, and even if he his reach exceeded his grasp, he was still trying to be the best, to write the Great American Novel. He once said that his goal for his writing was to achieve "Nothing less than a total revolution in the consciousness of our times." That's a pretty big goal to set for yourself. I admire a man who would make such a bold statement. I don't think many writers would admit, even to themselves, a goal so lofty. And Mailer wasn't afraid that people would mock him for his ambitions.

Unlike Hemingway, Mailer actually had a sense of humor about himself, he could poke fun at himself and his image. He was also a much better writer than Hemingway, and much less of an ass. There's a story that Hemingway and Mailer were going to meet at some bar in New York City, and Mailer was there waiting for his idol to show up, and he kept waiting and waiting and waiting. Hemingway never showed up, apparently he got cold feet. I think he was scared to meet someone who might possibly be as good a writer as he was. It's too bad, imagine the conversation that would have taken place!

Mailer was an extremely lucid commentator on America. It will probably be the case, if it isn't already, that his non-fiction is held in more esteem than his fiction. Two of my favorite Mailer books are "The Armies of the Night" and "Why Are We At War?" Published in 1968 and 2003, respectively, they show a writer who had a real grasp of his country, a brilliant incisiveness that he brought to his best writing. In interviews he was always entertaining, and a skilled conversationalist. Every interview I've read or seen of Mailer's always impressed me with his intelligence. On camera he was fascinating to watch, his bright blue eyes flashing with every new point he made.

I doubt very much that we will see his like again, the serious writer who becomes a celebrity and goes on talk shows. Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote were the three post-war writers who held the attention of the media in a way that few other authors have since. Can you imagine John Updike on the Tonight Show?

1948 was the year that Mailer burst onto the literary scene with the publication of his first book, "The Naked and the Dead." He was just 25 years old. The book still stands up as brilliant today, especially considering his age. Mailer was thrust into the limelight, and for a long time had to deal with only being known as the boy who had written this book. His subsequent books failed to find an audience. His 1955 novel "The Deer Park," though a favorite of Mailer's, was rejected as obscene by just about every publisher. When it finally appeared, the reviews were atrocious. Mailer even took the step of running an ad highlighting the book's many negative reviews! (He would later repeat this trick with 1983's "Ancient Evenings.") People always said to Mailer, "I loved the Naked and the Dead...(long pause)...and the others...(voice trailing off)..." When Mailer met JFK in 1960, Kennedy said to him, "I loved the Deer Park...and the others..." And in so doing, astutely stroked the Mailer ego and won his ever-lasting affection.

One could argue that Mailer didn't hit his stride again until the 1960's, when he found a decade more suited to his quicksilver talents. Mailer didn't seem to fit in the 1950's. He was no man in the grey flannel suit, he needed the times to catch up to him, and in the 1960's they caught up in a hurry. Mailer was at his most prolific during this decade, publishing some 8 books during the 60's. He also was at the forefront of what came to be called New Journalism, inserting himself as a character into his pieces, notably in "The Armies of the Night," about a 1967 march on the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War. I would say that by writing about Norman Mailer the character, he found his ideal subject, and perhaps his greatest creation. Mailer was larger than life anyway, why not simply make himself a character in his own works? He was more complicated and interesting than any fictional character he could invent. And maybe he did invent some of that character, that public persona that he put on.

By the late 70's Mailer had seemingly worn out his "Norman Mailer" persona. People seemed tired of him constantly inserting himself into the narrative, even though his 1975 book "The Fight," about the Rumble in the Jungle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, is one of my favorites. But that was one of the last times Mailer used himself as a character. He kept himself out of 1979's "The Executioner's Song" entirely, a won a second Pulitzer Prize. (His first was for "Armies of the Night.") Even though people love it, I couldn't get into it, and gave up about halfway through. Part of my problem was that Norman Mailer wasn't in it, and for that reason, it was much less interesting.

Mailer mellowed, at least a little bit, in his old age, although there was no way he would go gently into the night. His 2003 book "Why Are We At War?" issued just after the invasion of Iraq, showed that the old man had plenty of fight left in him. It was a brilliant attack on the Bush administration, full of all the vigor associated with Mailer at his best. And he still had one more big novel left in him, this year's "The Castle in the Forest." Good for him. Good for Norman to have one more big one, one more to go out on. He was a great man, despite his many failings. As usual, Gore Vidal summed up Mailer perfectly when he said, "He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements." Thank you, Norman Mailer, for all the wonderful work you left us. You will be missed.

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