Remembering Norman Mailer through his books

This entry from "The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" takes us on a tour of his best, his worst and his bravest.

By A.O. Scott
November 10, 2007 10:00PM (UTC)
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Norman Mailer


b. Long Branch, New Jersey

On an episode of "The Firing Line" broadcast in 1979, William F. Buckley declared Norman Mailer "the most prominent living American novelist," and then "the most notorious American novelist, devoting his time equally to literary production and self-abuse." Or, as Anatole Broyard once put it, "[Mailer's] career seems to be a brawl between his talent and his exhibitionism." For a time, the safe bet would have been exhibitionism by knockout, but now, in the fifteenth round, talent may yet triumph in a split decision.


It has often seemed, in other words, as though Mailer's notoriety would overwhelm his prominence -- that the six marriages, the failed campaign for mayor of New York, the fistfights, the wife-stabbing, the disastrous forays into filmmaking, and the political grandstanding would leave a deeper impression than "Why Are We in Vietnam?" or "The Gospel According to the Son." Mailer's celebrity has been both a burden and a temptation, a distraction from the lonely labor of writing and the source of some of his best work. The luckiest writers ascend gradually to prominence, cultivating their audience as they hone their skills; Mailer was famous at the age of twenty-five, with the publication of "The Naked and the Dead." Like a child actor, he has since faced the awkward challenge of growing up -- or refusing to -- in public. Sometimes, therefore, he has confused media attention with historical importance. And sometimes his hubris seems touchingly, charmingly naive. "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, Mailer wrote at the end of "Advertisements for Myself."

Hemingway and the rest, at last report, are moldering still. But if it is easy to ridicule Mailer for failing to realize such an extravagant ambition, it is nonetheless possible to admire him for having had the guts to conceive it and the temerity to confess it. If no other postwar American writer has produced as dazzling and spectacular a series of failures as Normal Mailer, it is because none has dared so much.

"Advertisements for Myself" begins with a short list of its author's favorite pieces, "for those who care to skim nothing but the cream of each author, and so miss the pleasure of liking him at his worst." The critical consensus is that the cream of Mailer's vast and various oeuvre consists, in chronological order, of "Advertisements for Myself," "The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song." None of these books is, strictly speaking, a work of fiction: "Advertisements" intersperses stories, magazine articles and fragments of abandoned novels with extended passages of self-justification; "The Armies of the Night" narrates Mailer's participation in an antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon in October, 1967; "The Executioner's Song" relates, in Balzacian detail, the story of Gary Gilmore, a habitual criminal executed in Utah in 1977. If we define the novel as a hybrid, intermediate form, bounded on one side by journalism and on the other by speculative philosophy, then these books -- with their mixture of stubborn empiricism and vertiginous abstraction, their density of detail and complexity of theme -- are among the most original and radical novels ever written.


But if we define the novel as a fictional form we encounter a paradox. Mailer is a brilliant journalist and a dogged, if mostly self-taught, philosopher. He is, however, a consistently bad novelist. This is not to say that he hasn't produced some good fiction: None of his novels is without pockets of terrific writing, vivid characterization, and narrative dexterity. But Mailer's most successfully executed novels -- "The Naked and the Dead," "Tough Guys Don't Dance," "Harlot's Ghost" -- are curiously unsatisfying. In each, his wilder impulses are checked by the constraints of his chosen genre: the war story, the policier and the spy novel, respectively. Each one fails to deliver the clean narrative punch these genres demand, and you realize that when he doesn't risk making a fool of himself, Mailer can be something of a bore. And so a second paradox follows from the first: the worse Mailer's novels are, the more pleasure they afford.

By all means, then, skim the cream, but to appreciate Mailer fully you must risk liking him at his worst. His second and third novels, "The Deer Park" and "Barbary Shore," were widely, and somewhat unfairly, reviled when they first appeared. Neither "The Deer Park's" attempt to reveal the spiritual corruption of Hollywood nor "Barbary Shore's" evocation of the political paranoia of the McCarthy era is particularly convincing, but both books have a crude and vivid power that many more polished performances lack. The novel, for Mailer, is less a literary form than an existential gambit, and this is why he is most interesting in triumph or in disaster, and most tired (and tiresome) when playing it safe. So "Tough Guys Don't Dance," for all its fine evocations of Provincetown and its engaging whodunit structure, is less memorable and less authentic a reflection of Mailer's gifts than the five hundred pages of Pharaonic sodomy that constitute "Ancient Evenings."

But Mailer's worst novel -- the novel whose place in his canon is absolutely central -- is "An American Dream." All of his characteristic preoccupations -- Manichean theology, political power, nostalgie de la boue, anal sex and the subterranean connections between them -- are on display, knit together in a plot that veers from the incredible to the incomprehensible. Yet the book's chaos seems now to be a vivid and indelible reflection of the disorder of its time and place. It is a work of sublime bravery.


See also: Because he is Jewish, Mailer is often carelessly grouped with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Because he writes about sex, he is sometimes mentioned alongside John Updike. But these writers are much more careful psychological realists than Mailer. Only one of Mailer's contemporaries can legitimately be called his peer: a great novelist who has never written a great novel; a political animal whose politics are an idiosyncratic amalgam of left and right; a writer who has dabbled promiscuously in journalism, movies and media celebrity; a sexual radical strangely at odds with the sexual revolution. Needless to say, this writer, never one of Mailer's friends, was for a long time his nemesis. Without Normal Mailer and Gore Vidal, American literature in the second half of the twentieth century would not exist; without everyone else in this book, it would.

Fiction: The Naked and the Dead (1948), Barbary Shore (1951), The Deer Park (1955), Advertisements for Myself (stories, essays, etc., 1959), An American Dream (1965), Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), A Transit to Narcissus (1978), The Executioner's Song (1979), Ancient Evenings (1983), Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), Harlot's Ghost (1991), The Gospel According to the Son (1997), The Castle in the Forest (2007)


Selected Nonfiction: The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster (essays, 1957), Deaths for the Ladies and Other Disasters (poems and prose, 1962), The Presidential Papers (1963), Cannibals and Christians (1966), The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1967), The Armies of the Night (1968), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), King of the Hill: On the Fight of the Century (1970), The Prisoner of Sex (1971), St. George and the Godfather (1972), Marilyn: A Biography (1973), The Faith of Graffiti (1974), The Fight (1975), Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions (1960-1972) (1976), Of Women and Their Elegance (1980), How the Wimp Won the War (1991), Pablo and Fernande: Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography (1994), Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (1995), The Time of Our Time (1998), The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing (2003), Why Are We at War? (2003)

A.O. Scott


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