Norman Mailer, Literary Hustler
Fifty Years ago, Norman Mailer was, after J.D. Salinger, postwar America’s most famous writer of literary fiction. Today Mailer’s name no longer figures other than sporadically on lists of important postwar writers. It is instructive to recall that in 1959, he counted himself among “the strong talents of my generation, those few of us who have wide minds in a narrow overdeveloped time.” This brash claim was typical of Mailer, and he would have expected nothing less six years after his death than the publication of two or three thousand-page biographies.
We have one, in fact, J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life (Simon & Schuster, 960 pages), and it is the authorized biography. Though far too long for any reasonable purpose, it turns out to be both decently written and, for much of its excessive length, unexpectedly interesting. What makes it readable is that Lennon, though a friend of Mailer’s during his life and an admirer of his work, is neither uncritical nor deluded about his subject. Lennon views Mailer as something not far removed from a lifelong drunken adolescent—albeit one of genius and, even more important, of near-Dickensian industry.
About the Author
Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.