Of the generation of American novelists recently passed—Bellow, Styron, Vonnegut—none is harder to come to terms with than Norman Mailer, who died last Saturday at the age of 84. In part that is because his celebrity is nearly unimaginable today, and in part because his personality was so outsized; but mostly it’s because no great writer—and he was, at his best, as great as he said he was—ever wrote quite as much crap.
It’s astounding, really, and almost inexplicable, that a man who could write books as keen and inexhaustible as The Executioner’s Song and Why Are We in Vietnam? could also write Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, along with a half-dozen or so other works that were comparably lazy, clumsy, and fatuous. And beyond that, there were his public pronouncements about sex, art, and ambition, plastic and cancer and television, and God, and the Kennedys, and America. … As a rule, novelists are about as interesting when they talk about politics as political thinkers are when they talk about the novel. Mailer made the mistake of thinking otherwise more often—far more often—than most.
But his public persona was mostly a performance, and as such it was, not just distinct from his writing, but generally inimical to it (as Mailer himself would eventually admit). What’s more, there was a teasing, theatrical quality to it that a lot of people seemed to have missed. Much has been said about Mailer’s obsession with masculinity and brutality: the dicta, the focus on boxing, war, murder, and the terrible mistake he made with Jack Henry Abbott. Gore Vidal once compared him to Charles Manson, which was silly, but there’s no doubt that Mailer’s stance on the question of manhood was troubling, at least when he was hawking it. He was right about some things—for example, about the use, if not the necessity, of danger for turning boys into men—but he was wrong about much more: about the difference between danger and violence, about the purposes and pleasures of sex, and above all, about women, whom he often loved, sometimes hated, and almost never understood.
Still, I don’t think he was merely chauvinistic—it was more complicated than that. There was always an element of self-consciousness to his bluster. He was wholly without guile, calculation, or opportunism, and he was incapable of shrewdness, a rare and appealing trait in someone with his ambition; but he knew a good role when he saw one. Some years ago, paraphrasing Auden on Rilke, I described Mailer as the greatest lesbian writer since Gertrude Stein. It’s a judgment I stand by, with cheerful regards to all parties concerned. Because he wasn’t macho, after all, though that’s what he was usually accused of: He was butch.
Thirty books in 60 years is a relentless, punishing schedule; it would be hard on a shut-in, it must have been brutal on Mailer, and a lot of things got broken along the way. Marriages, for example, and friendships: more than a few of each. A lot of barriers got broken, too, between fiction and nonfiction, between public and private life, between genius and idiocy. And this one, which I’m not sure anyone’s noticed: Mailer was the first great Jewish American novelist who didn’t feel obliged to write about Jews. His only real precedent was Nathanael West (born Nathan Weinstein), but West was not a colossal enough figure to start a new practice. Mailer was, and since his heyday there have been two traditions: One is inward-looking, cerebral and high-strung, and it includes Bellow, Roth, and Malamud, with Jonathan Safran Foer bringing up the rear. The other is outward-looking and somewhat more violent, and it includes Mailer himself, David Mamet, and perhaps Richard Price—none of whom, coincidentally or not, have Jewish last names (as I myself do not). I wouldn’t say the first tradition was a ghetto or that the second is a betrayal, but I do think the freedom to choose between them (or mix them at will) is a gift, and it came from Mailer.
He was also a first-rate aphorist—a minor skill, but one that can outlast whole books’ worth of prose. His notorious essay “Evaluations—Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room,” in which he quickly demolishes some of the most beloved of his contemporaries, is vain, vicious, profoundly unfair, and more often right than wrong. His account of how he makes his novels—”I start with the idea of constructing a treehouse and end with a skyscraper made of wood”—remains one of the most accurate descriptions of the process I’ve ever encountered. And he said this: “Sometime I think the novelist fashions a totem just as much as an aesthetic and that his real aim, not even known necessarily to himself, is to create a diversion in the fields of dread.” And this: “The idea could even be advanced that style comes to young authors about the time they recognize that life is also ready to injure them.” (A typical Mailer bon mot: an impeccable thought and an elegant formulation, preceded by seven words of needless mush.) And he said this, which is perfect: “Something out there is not necessarily fooling.”
Yes, and Mailer was not necessarily fooling, either. He wasn’t fooling when he wrote Why Are We in Vietnam?, which for all its madness and Grand Guignol is a brilliant novel, and one I hope is still being read, now that we are in Iraq. He wasn’t fooling when he wrote Harlot’s Ghost—a novel that no one, alas, seems to have noticed at all. He certainly wasn’t fooling when he wrote The Executioner’s Song, which is as close to perfect as a book gets and will remain one of the permanent American novels of the last century. (I’m perfectly happy to let his own description of it, as a “true life novel,” stand unchallenged, in large part because it pisses off both journalists, who don’t write as well as Mailer did, and novelists, who are seldom handed such rich material to work with.) From the enormous welter of Lawrence Schiller’s reporting, Mailer shaped a flawless and monumental narrative: a great love story, a terrifying crime novel, and a symphony of American voices, all wrapped into one. Among massive 20th-century American novels, its only competition is The Adventures of Augie March.
If we are to make literature into a horse race (as Mailer himself compulsively did), I’d have to say Bellow was a better writer. But I’ll miss Mailer more. There’s no one like him around anymore, no one as fearless who isn’t playing to a constituency, no one taking the risks he took. A great writer—like a great boxer, actually—chooses his fights carefully, something Mailer never really learned how to do. But he fought with all he had, and he wasn’t fooling.