It’s a good time to look back at the career of the combative writer
Brace yourselves, folks, it’s Mailer time.
An affectionate look at the Great Man, “Mornings With Mailer,’’ written by Dwayne Raymond, his final personal assistant, came out in January. A second, “A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir’’ by his sixth and final wife, the formidable Norris Church Mailer, arrives next month, along with a gamy kiss-and-tell book, “Loving Mailer’’ by a mistress named Carole Mallory that belongs on TMZ.com.
There is no trend here, no stop-the-presses news — simply a trio of books about Norman Mailer that happened to be published within months of one another. Judging by early reviews, Norris Mailer’s is the keeper. She writes well and illuminates their life together — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Stalwarts in the Norman Mailer Society will devour the first two and may sneak a peek at the third in the dead of night.
Although he lived his final years in Provincetown, Mailer was not of New England. He wasn’t one of ours. He was a pugnacious New Yorker out of Brooklyn who had the good taste to summer there for decades. Unlike J.D. Salinger, he was no recluse. Quite the contrary, he craved the limelight to a fault, and his public persona, often reduced to buffoonery, damaged his literary reputation as one of the major American writers of the second half of the 20th century.
There are plenty of people in this country who had no time for Mailer when he was alive, much less after he’s gone. They didn’t like him and they didn’t like his books. He was a virulent misogynist. Almost everybody, at one time or another, found his behavior boorish.
(He famously stabbed his second wife, bit Rip Torn’s ear in a fight, and was a frequent agoniste in drunken brawls. It is universally agreed that he drank way, way too much.)
But there are legions of fans who prize his writing and took his public persona in stride. I’m one. Mailer was massively flawed, but he was so very human at the same time. Yes, he wrote some lousy stuff — “Ancient Evenings’’ still curdles my blood. John Updike could write rings around Mailer in his sleep. And yet Updike never possessed what Mailer did: a kernel of genius that, every now and then, flowered into a level of writing that transcended Updike.
A convicted murderer is executed in Utah in 1977. From that came the astonishing “The Executioner’s Song.’’ His “Of a Fire on the Moon’’ about the early space program blows away “The Right Stuff.’’ In “The Armies of the Night,’’ we see his great eye and reportage about the March on the Pentagon in 1967. It goes on.
Mailer brought with him a stunning array of energy and outrage, ego and insecurity. One thing Norman Mailer never was was boring. Take the time he ran for mayor of New York City with columnist Jimmy Breslin for City Council president. The campaign was chaotic, amusing, and riveting as only a train wreck can be. Mailer called for the city to become the 51st state. He is reported to have said this:
“The difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m no good and I can prove it.’’ Breslin, for his part, later said, “I am mortified to have taken part in a process that required bars to be closed.’’
Mailer was game for anything. I watched him take on Berkeley students who displayed their rabid dislike of him when he spoke there in the early ’70s. He gave as good as he got, and in the process he did something I’ve never forgotten: He thought on his feet. He would take a question and actually ponder it before answering. You don’t see much of that.
Now would be a good time for those who have forgotten how good he could be, and others who never knew, to try some Mailer. Start either with “The Executioner’s Song’’ or “The Armies of the Night’’ and take it from there.
The two books present the unique voice of a great American writer at the height of his powers. They display a depth of talent that remains secure far after his public pugilism died.
Sam Allis’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.