It sometimes chagrins me that there is no author whose work I’ll ever know the way I do Norman Mailer’s. An adolescent immersion in Alexander Pope (unlikely) or Stendhal (if only) might have stood me in better stead, but it wasn’t to be. Until I came up for air sometime after college—Mailer as lodestar didn’t survive Edith Wharton, let alone Nabokov—I was an avid member of the boys’ club inflamed by his example.
I’ve never met a woman who clamored for admission. Or much of anyone under 50 who wants in even as a kibitzer, which is bad news for the immortality Mailer craved. As he himself told us, he “formed the desire to be a major writer”—note the crucial adjective—shortly before turning 17, thanks to discovering John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In his Depression-era boyhood, though, Mailer had thrilled to the romances of Rafael Sabatini, the immortal (well, more so than James T. Farrell) author of Captain Blood. That swashbuckling influence stayed with him forever. Far from the least of his appeal to acolytes like me was the effect Mailer’s writing gave of gallantly fighting duels while seated and alone in a room, coincidentally an apt description of our love lives.
Few of us tried to ape Mailer’s style once we acquired our own bylines. That wasn’t only because its formidable sinuosities and cascades of metaphor were beyond our gifts or our editors’ patience. The mirror-happy convolutions of his shape-shifting prose were predicated on and, indeed, artistically justified only by his celebrity. A writer who lacked it simply couldn’t have had Mailer’s particular access to and perceptions of life in the American vortex, let alone expressed the latter with such a magniloquent sense of their consequence. Being the notorious “Norman Mailer” wasn’t only his identity; it was his vantage point, his crow’s nest, his claim to expertise in understanding how society worked.
Thanks to 1948’s best-selling World War II novel The Naked and the Dead—in its Dos Passos–influenced naturalism, about as predictive of Mailer’s later career as Rahm Emanuel’s ballet days were of his, but his reputation’s permanent “Get Out of Jail Free” card just the same—fame came to him early. It was fame of a sort unimaginable today for a literary figure, since it’s not as if J.K. Rowling were being listed for a Nobel Prize the same week the Harry Potter theme park gaudily opened in Orlando. As a result, Mailer’s intelligibility to modern readers requires considerable boning up on the 20th-century carnival.
Failing to recognize as much is the main limitation of J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life. Granted, this huge tome—928 pages long, with hardly a dull one for old Mailer fans—is likely to be the bio later exegetes will mine for the basic facts. Partly because Lennon talked to a great many people who either are no longer with us or won’t be much longer, the book is as informative as it is devotional, and that’s saying a lot.
Still, few biographies would benefit as much from the extra dimension implied by the corny title-page formula: “… And His Times.” Friends with his subject for more than 25 years, Lennon is essentially a trad-minded academic with a meal ticket. As diligent and intelligent as he is, you may yearn for the kind of Greil Marcus–style critic weaned on playing ping-pong with the culture. Lennon doesn’t have the gallivanting instincts to convey the impact of the uptight 1950s, explosive 1960s, and tacky 1970s on Mailer’s career. Yet those decades were the villains and henchmen he encountered on his Sabatini—like wade up the castle stairs.
For the record, I’ve met Mike Lennon once—at the 1999 conference of the James Jones Literary Society, which may tell you more about us both than you need to know—and he’s definitely one of the good guys. But biographers have to decide whether they’re Boswell or Robert A. Caro. Though Lennon is trying to be magisterial—this is one of those bios whose author enters the story as a minor character named “J. Michael Lennon,” avoiding a distractingly chummy “I”—he’s still got a man crush on you know who.
At Lennon’s worst, he can rush in to debarb the eldest Mailer daughter’s unbesotted description of her dad’s one-upmanship-oriented parenting: “If Mailer could hear these words, he might respond by saying that he came on strong with his children and friends to keep the dialectic supple, to encourage a strong response.” Beyond-the-grave emphasis added, and really? Plenty of egotistic fathers downing one more at the Dew Drop Inn would be gratified by a defense so eloquent, at least once you explained the meaning of “dialectic” to them.
Lennon is strongest when he’s adding fresh details to the vital events in Mailer’s CV—as well as to plenty of non-vital ones, meaning your mileage may vary. Young Norman’s Brooklyn upbringing by a mother convinced he was a genius and his experiences as a Jew at then ultra-WASPy Harvard have been recounted before, but never this comprehensively. Better yet, because Mailer not only wrote The Naked and the Dead but often made it plain that soldiering in the Pacific had taught him more about America than Harvard or even Brooklyn did, some of us have pined for years for an authoritative description of his 1944–1946 Army service—but no more. Though he saw some not very intense combat in the Philippines and made good use of it, his stints near Yokohama and elsewhere with our occupation forces after V-J Day have been largely neglected by biographers until now. Yet the peacetime Army is usually the Army at its most Mickey Mouse, and Mailer the malcontent may have been born here. He once joked about following up his famous first book with The Naked and the Dead Go to Japan, and reading Lennon makes you wish he’d done it.
Leaping ahead, Lennon’s account of the most traumatic evening of Mailer’s life—the 1960 party that ended with his drunkenly stabbing his second wife (she survived, but that’s hardly something for him to brag about) and then doing a stint in Bellevue—is as definitive as we’re likely to get. The fascination is that Mailer’s career not only survived but thrived. In essence, the New York literary establishment decided he was too valuable or maybe just too piquant to spurn, not that Mailer was especially cowed or repentant. His next novel, An American Dream, starred a man who murdered his wife and got away with it.
Even so, his colorful life—six marriages in all and plenty of flaps, feuds, and scandals—doesn’t justify a book even longer than Carlos Baker’s prosaic but pioneering Ernest Hemingway bio. Six years after Mailer’s death, we want assessments, and what did all this Sturm und Drang produce that’s worth eternity’s attention? One certifiable classic—The Armies of the Night, his innovatively self-referential account of 1967’s Vietnam-protesting March on the Pentagon—and one compilation whose very title’s effrontery was pivotal to 20th-century notions of celebrity: Advertisements for Myself, a 1959 conversion of (mostly) dross into Warhol-anticipating gold. As impressive as The Executioner’s Song is, that 1979 “true life” narrative of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore’s last days is also somewhat out of category. In its scrupulous omission of any authorial personality, it’s the least Maileresque book of our man’s mature career.
Those three aside, he wrote enough emblematic political and social journalism to more than earn a reliquary in the Zeitgeist Hall of Fame. But I can’t think of one novel of his I’d swear deserves to live forever, not even The Naked and the Dead, which is finally too conventional and imitative in technique to qualify for capital-G Greatness. (The wonder is that 25-year-old Norman got close.) When it comes to looming large in strictly literary history, Kurt Vonnegut is the tortoise to Mailer’s hare.
But cultural history—well, that’s a whole other kettle of white whales, you might say. From figuratively tussling with Hemingway’s ghost and literally arm-wrestling Muhammad Ali to playing bull in the arena to women’s lib, Mailer conflated the roles of spectator and set-upon gladiator in a way that made him, for a while, the literary world’s answer to Bob Dylan. That Mailer saw no point in staying on the sidelines whenever he could scramble onstage is, presumably, what Lennon means to convey with his A Double Life subtitle—Norman as observer versus Norman as participant.
So it’s unfortunate that our biographer never elucidates what made Mailer’s lightning-rod stance so potent in his prime. Among other things, Lennon doesn’t even try to make sense of Mailer’s politics. They were sometimes brave, never practical, and often foolish—but foolish in a way that illuminated their turbulent context, the quality that gives so much of his work its best shot at lasting interest. After supporting Henry Wallace for president in 1948—what a classic amateur move!—he tricked himself out as the kind of illusion-free Marxist for whom reality always betrays the dream. That was largely owing to the tutelage of French novelist Jean Malaquais, a man whose hauteur leaves Noam Chomsky looking like he’d fit in around the cracker barrel on The Andy Griffith Show. Even so, a romantic right down to his fundament—in fact, a romantic about his fundament, though Lennon is understandably gingerly when it comes to his man’s once-famous rump fetish—Mailer couldn’t help romanticizing Malaquais’s anti-romanticism in his botched but haunting second novel, 1951’s Barbary Shore.
Then, having discovered marijuana and out to pull intellectual rank on Kerouac and the Beats even as he borrowed their cachet, he detoured into what he called “existentialism.” As Gore Vidal wickedly pointed out, Mailer didn’t actually seem to know what the word meant. But as fatuous as some of his trial-and-error posturing could be in those days, the 1950s incubated his shift from a more or less conventional novelistic trajectory—after Barbary Shore, his undervalued Hollywood novel The Deer Park was the only other book of fiction he published in that decade—to an unruly combo of provocateur, mystic, clown, and bellwether. From co-founding The Village Voice to writing “The White Negro”—his infuriating, now badly dated but seminal 1957 bid to define what grew into the counterculture—no writer not named Allen Ginsberg better anticipated the cataclysms to come.
No wonder the ’60s were Mailer’s zenith, starting with “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” his genuinely prescient essay on the 1960 Democratic convention and what John F. Kennedy’s nomination meant for the country’s future. (It’s still imitated today, albeit by people who may no longer know it’s the urtext for conceptualizing politicians as pop stars.) Finally, Norman the hipster and Norman the unorthodox lefty—not to mention Norman the celebrity, the binding ingredient here—could cohabit to fertile effect, whether he was transforming his own vanities, mishaps, and haphazard élan into a barometer of the national condition in The Armies of the Night or running for mayor of New York City and covering the Apollo 11 moon landing just weeks apart in 1969. It’s faintly maddening that nothing in Lennon’s tone—no change in pacing, no fresh excitement in his steadfastly meat-and-potatoes prose—conveys the crackle of it all.
Romantics still make lousy political thinkers, however. Virtually the only consistent note in Mailer’s all-over-the-map political writing is his yen for a hero to whom he can look up if not bow down, not a particularly democratic goal. He thought he’d found one in JFK before getting jilted at the prom—meaning the Bay of Pigs, not Dallas—and he spent the rest of Camelot swooning over Castro. For a man who prided himself on detecting the totalitarianism in everything from modern architecture to ban-the-Bomb campaigns, his inability to recognize the implications of his own appetite for captains, kings, and men on horseback is either troubling or comic.
The upside was that his penchant for cults of personality made him scathing about the right wing’s messiahs, from Barry Goldwater and little-engine-that-could Richard Nixon to then-Governor Ronald Reagan, later to be the unwelcome culmination of Mailer’s fantasies about an actor playing the part of a great president. But for Mailer, as for so many people, romanticism bit the dust for good in 1968. Once politics was no longer a topic his imagination could transform into Captain Blood thrashing all comers on the world-historical stage, his political pieces went from exhilarating to wearily paycheck-paunchy until his loathing of the Iraq War galvanized him into one final burst of eloquence.
Long before that point, feminism was his ultimate undoing—and deservedly so. Despite many blown guesses, he’d never so blatantly been on the wrong side of history. Perhaps the only thing worse than the pronouncements that got him in feminists’ black books to begin with—“the prime responsibility of a woman is probably to be on earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself and conceive children who will improve the species,” and so on—was his idea of transcending his own prejudices. “So let woman [sic] be what she would, and what she could,” goes the peroration that concludes The Prisoner of Sex, his Christ-they’re-coming-for-me-now 1971 take on what was then called Women’s Lib. “Let her cohabit with elephants if she had to, and fuck with Borzoi hounds.” The latter quote doesn’t appear in Lennon’s biography, incidentally. No fool, he doubtless knows when to exit whistling.
Live by the zeitgeist, die by the zeitgeist. It was no small feat of talent, energy, and inventiveness to stay electrifying for a quarter-century. But Mailer lived another 30 years to witness the decrepitude of his generation’s idea of what being a “major” writer in the American landscape meant. Outside a padded cell, no living novelist would brag, as Mailer did in the opening pages of Advertisements for Myself, of his determination to “settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” (Not merely to affect it, notice—the limit of what his idol Hemingway had conceivably succeeded in doing—but revolutionize it.) Just the same, do I feel any residual affection for Grandpa Guignol? Of course I do. Despite the many areas where I can’t and don’t care to defend him, he was the first exemplar I had. Nowadays, a heroic conception of the literary life is bound to strike me and my peers as absurd, but it wasn’t a bad flag to spot fluttering away in the distance once upon a time.