Two writers obsessed me in my youth, and inspired me to want to write: William Faulkner, who was long dead by the time I first heard his name, and Norman Mailer, who died today at 84.
I admit I felt a little queasy when my wife announced this to me, as shocked as one can be when an elderly hero dies. I was sure he would roll on for another decade. His latest book, a novelized treatment of Adolph Hitler’s early life, was supposed to be the first in a trilogy. To announce a trilogy is a kind of vow. Maybe Mailer thought making this vow would buy him a little more time.
Mailer was a guilty pleasure, in several ways. First, his sentences were literally delicious. Other writers might have had a more powerful style — Faulkner for example — but few seemed to take such joy at constructing great sentences. His ideas might even be absurd, but his sentences kept you on board. He wrote like a combination of Muhammad Ali and Gene Kelly. Strength, style, grace and a wily humor. Reading Mailer at his best was almost too much fun, especially for an English major who was expected to get through The Faerie Queen or Henry James.
At the time I started reading him, he was widely reviled, especially in Berkeley, as a “male chauvinist pig” — an epithet that feminist author Kate Millet invented initially just to describe him. I don’t think Mailer is sexist. I think he is, or was, a provocateur battling the future, a “left conservative” whose problem with the prevailing feminist ideology was not its call for justice, but its claim to remake society abruptly, based only on a handful of observations and principles. For Mailer, at one time a Marxist, feminism simply did not explain enough, and had not wrestled with its contradictions in the way, he might argue, socialism had.
Mailer was, as I recall, a fan of Edmund Burke, and no Burkian could tolerate a revolution based on what was then a new movement that left so many questions unanswered. In Mailer’s mind, revolutions of that kind end up dehumanizing everyone. His most scorned essay The Prisoner of Sex was, as I recall it, less an assertion of male privilege than of creative freedom, the right of an artist to draw upon his (or her) individualism, including their sexual identity, as a source of ideas, without fear of censorship or official opprobrium. Looking back, it was the first cry against political correctness. Even though it had its fair share of stupid statements, I loved it. But I kept quiet about my enthusiasm.
Mailer wrote so much about his aspirations as a novelist. To him, to be a novelist was not just a craft, it was an entire worldview, a powerful combination of intellectual and artistic gifts that he used to understand anything and everything. Early in his career, he claimed he might outdo Melville, Twain and Hemingway, and saw his own career as a battle with his novel-writing contemporaries, most of whom he snidely dismissed. Ironically, at the outset of his greatest period of non-fiction writing, Mailer wrote this:
“If I have one ambition above all others, it is to write a novel which Dostoevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendahl, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway might come to read, for it would carry what they had to tell another part of the way.”
But I didn’t really like his novels, and that was another source of guilt. If I’d ever met him, I’d have to admit I mostly couldn’t finish them. For all his gifts, I think he had a difficult time inventing believable characters who weren’t him. Dialogue was another weak spot, because that involved more than one character, and they couldn’t both be him. And, as was the case with many novelists of his generation, his imagination didn’t measure up to the true stories of his lifetime, the real events he covered so well in his non-fiction writing. Think of the people he wrote about: John F. Kennedy. Ali. Marilyn Monroe. Gary Gilmore, the murderer who was the subject of his greatest book, The Executioner’s Song. Lee Harvey Oswald. Adolph Hitler. Jesus Christ.
What Mailer offered during his most fertile period is the opportunity to engage with the real world of our own imaginations–the fantastical and rapidly changing world we mostly absorbed through the media–processed by a fascinating, sometimes perverse dreamer/intellectual/participant/bullshitter; one who constantly delivered the most surprising and elegant sentences to encapsulate his ever-evolving thoughts and perceptions.
I started to believe I had outgrown him at some point in the 80s, so I must confess I don’t know much of his work past The Executioner’s Song. He seemed to have decided that if he was going to be America’s greatest novelist, he’d better devote his precious time to novels; but from the perspective of a Mailer non-fiction fan, it was kind of like he’d retired. Some day, I’ll have to catch up on the novels he wrote during the past 25 years to see if he even came close to what envisioned himself capable of. Here’s a “no” vote, FWIW.
To get into the Mailer who thrilled me, read Advertisements for Myself, The Presidential Papers, Cannibals and Christians, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of A Fire on the Moon, Marilyn, The Fight and The Executioner’s Song. He has a pretty good book on the craft of writing, The Spooky Art, which came much later. That’s the book I’m going to pull off my shelf today in his honor.
If you’ve got time for only one book, that would have to be The Armies of the Night, a memoir of his involvement in a famous protest against the Vietnam War. It is the book where everything he’s got comes together. His plays his massive ego for laughs. The grandeur of his speculations is matched by the apocalyptic moment he describes. He captures the political furies unleashed by that war as well as anyone, simultaneously deflating the pomposity of the phalanx of intellectuals who, like himself, could not escape the accusation of posturing from a safe distance about a bloody battle far away.
If you want to read about Mailer the WWII novelist, Mailer the drunken wife-stabber, Mailer writing for the money, Mailer biting off part of actor Rip Torn’s ear, more about Mailer battling feminists, or Mailer the advocate for the release of a killer who then killed again, it’s all here in the New York Times obituary. I found the obit’s final grafs affecting:
Interviewed at his house in Provincetown, Mass., shortly before (his final) book’s publication, Mr. Mailer, frail but cheerful, said he hoped his failing eyesight would hold out long enough for him to complete a sequel. His knees were shot, he added, holding up the two canes he walked with, and he had begun doing daily crossword puzzles to refresh his word hoard.
On the other hand, he said, writing was now easier for him in at least one respect.
“The waste is less,” he said. “The elements of mania and depression are diminished. Writing is a serious and sober activity for me now compared to when I was younger. The question of how good are you is one that really good novelists obsess about more than poor ones. Good novelists are always terribly affected by the fear that they’re not as good as they thought and why are they doing it, what are they up to?
“It’s such an odd notion, particularly in this technological society, of whether your life is justified by being a novelist,” he continued. “And the nice thing about getting older is that I no longer worry about that. I’ve come to the simple recognition that would have saved me much woe 30 or 40 or 50 years ago — that one’s eventual reputation has very little to do with one’s talent. History determines it, not the order of your words.”
Shaking his head, he added: “In two years I will have been a published novelist for 60 years. That’s not true for very many of us.” And he recalled something he had said at the National Book Award ceremony in 2005, when he was given a lifetime achievement award: that he felt like an old coachmaker who looks with horror at the turn of the 20th century, watching automobiles roar by with their fumes.
“I think the novel is on the way out,” he said. “I also believe, because it’s natural to take one’s own occupation more seriously than others, that the world may be the less for that.”
Mailer died in New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital of acute renal failure, just a few weeks after he had surgery to remove scar tissue from his lung. He was previously hospitalized in September for asthma, checking himself out to attend his youngest daughter’s wedding. He had heart bypass surgery in 2005.