The Naked Novelist and the Dead Reputation
As the second anniversary of his passing approaches, it is worth asking: How is Norman Mailer, without question the most famous American writer of the second half of the 20th century, to be remembered? It is a measure of Mailer’s effect on the culture, for better or for worse, that answering the question is a pressing and valuable task. Are we to esteem him, in the words of Newsweek’s Malcolm Jones, as “a writer who [was]—and there truly is no point debating this now, is there—one of the very greatest authors of his time”? Or was Charles McGrath of the New York Times closer to the truth when he wrote that “he was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.?.?.?. And if he never quite succeeded in bringing off what he called ‘the big one’—the Great American Novel—it was not for want of trying”?
Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in New Jersey in 1923 but would always be known as a Brooklynite—though he grew to adulthood and eventually passed away not in the hardscrabble sections of the borough but rather in the tony enclave of Brooklyn Heights. A photograph of Mailer at seven shows a preposterously adorable little tyke, in neatly creased shorts, knee socks, and Buster Browns, hands shoved cavalierly into his pockets, hair brushed just so, eyes gleaming, smile toothsome, ears protruding from his head at an 80-degree angle. He looks the perfect mama’s boy cruising for a bruising.
His mother, Fanny, indeed adored him, and Freud famously said that a son secure in his mother’s love grows up feeling like a king. Fanny would be quick to forgive all her adult son’s peccadilloes and even his outrages. Kings, it is well known, get way with murder.
Although his adolescent taste in reading ran to comic books, the magazine Spicy Detective, and Rafael Sabatini swashbucklers—he lied about more respectable literary favorites on his college application—he entered Harvard at the age of 16, to major in aeronautical engineering. Before he turned 17, literature took him unawares. English A introduced him to Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, and James T. Farrell; that serious novelists should choose to treat compassionately the lives of the working class and the poor certified the significance of his own Brooklyn life, though that was several social and economic cuts above those of Studs Lonigan or the Joad family.
He took to writing and posing with a would-be hard guy’s swagger. Playing Harvard intramural football, he believed, qualified him as a genuine tough. Bragging of imaginary sexual exploits with townie girls diminished the sting of his virginity. The writing, meanwhile, was going over rather better than the virile posturing; or rather, the writing more convincingly accommodated the virile posturing. “The Greatest Thing in the World,” a Hemingway-like tale of a pool hustler who takes a nasty beatdown from his marks but gets away with the dough, won the estimable Story magazine’s annual collegiate fiction competition in 1941, and Mailer was very nearly launched.
Connections were made, as only Harvard can make them, and the publishing house Rinehart expressed an interest in seeing more of his work. He would send Rinehart the two novels he wrote during the next three years, the first about a rich youth out to prove his manhood on a hitchhiking trip (Mailer had received his first taste of sexual intercourse at a brothel while hitching through Virginia), the second set in a state mental hospital like the one where he had worked one summer. Both went unpublished.
It would take the war to bring out Mailer’s mature literary gifts. He was drafted in April 1944 and wound up serving in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry, which afforded him the experience for the breakthrough novel he wanted. The Naked and the Dead (1948) tracks an American Army patrol on a Japanese-infested island. The perils of combat endured and the ordeal of climbing a jungle mountain come to nothing as a horde of bees attacks the patrol and sends the men careering blindly down the mountainside; the patrol’s mission proves pointless, as the deciding battle is won elsewhere.
One soldier’s reaction to the approach of combat sums up Mailer’s vision of this war: “He was weak and terrified, and he didn’t understand.” In the vein of such other World War II classics as James Jones’s From Here to Eternity and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, tyrannical and bloody-minded superiors, fascistic just like the enemy, command hapless dogfaces with no regard for the soldiers’ humanity.
There is no sense in Mailer that the war is being fought for noble ends against a foe that is remarkable for its barbarity and whose triumph would be catastrophic. America might have some catching up to do with the overt fascists when it comes to evil, but our leadership bears the seeds of great political wrongdoing.
This first novel made Mailer a literary star at the age of 25 and ensured his celebrity for life. Celebrity, of course, comes with a caveat: you will not be most known for your most worthy accomplishment. Mailer had run into trouble with prospective publishers because of the raunchiness of his soldiers’ language. To ensure that his book could legally be sent through the mails, he substituted the word fug for the more conventional form of the expletive. When Mailer was introduced to Tallulah Bankhead at a party, she is said to have said, “Oh, so you’re the young man who can’t spell.”
Mailer would either disavow or tip his hat to Tallulah’s wit depending on how he felt at the time. A 60’s rock group would call itself The Fugs in honor of Mailer’s bowdlerized ejaculation. It is not necessarily the sort of thing a writer longs to be known for, but Mailer would note the homage with evident fondness in what is probably his most esteemed book, The Armies of the Night (1968). By then every contribution to his notoriety was welcome.
Before, though, some of his most earnest offerings would meet with a cold reception. His second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), set in a Brooklyn boardinghouse, is essentially a long political conversation that winds among the glories and monstrosities of socialism and ends in murder. It is mostly a tiresome affair, top-heavy with theoretical disquisition, and the critics generally hated it, much to Mailer’s surprise; he thought the love feast would go on forever. Still, there is some wisdom to be found in it, as when McLeod, a former Soviet apparatchik who played a bureaucratic part in Trotsky’s assassination, offers his view on the ultimate failure of socialism: “You might say the human function of socialism?.?.?.?is to raise mankind to a higher level of suffering, for given the hypothesis that man has certain tragic contradictions, the alternative is between a hungry belly and a hungry mind, but fulfillment there is never.”
That Mailer intended this to be the definitive word on the matter, however, seems unlikely. In the 1953 review-essay “David Riesman Reconsidered,” he wrote, “As serious artistic expression is the answer to the meaning of life for a few, so the passion for socialism is the only meaning I can conceive in the lives of those who are not artists; if one cannot create ‘works,’ one may dream at least of an era when humans create humans, and the satisfaction of the radical can come from the thought that he tries to keep this idea alive.”
The Deer Park (1955) takes place in a desert outpost of Hollywood and follows the intricate erotic transactions of its not exactly savory denizens. The emotional high-wire act is the principal theme, as it would be so often in Mailer. Here is the producer Charley Eitel puzzling his way through a balked and vexing love affair: “The essence of spirit, he thought to himself, was to choose the thing which did not better one’s position but made it more perilous. That was why the world he knew was poor, for it insisted morality and caution were identical.” For Mailer, caution would invariably send true morality packing.
By this point, Mailer had jettisoned his first wife, college sweetheart Beatrice Silverman, and clearly traded up in the sexual-allure department by marrying the painter Adele Morales in 1954. With Adele’s all-too-willing complicity, he cultivated the ugliest part of his nature and called it high moral adventure.
Threesomes, foursomes, and moresomes became a regular feature of their sex life. Mailer especially got off watching his wife with other women; when he could provoke her to duke it out with her lesbian partner, his night was made. The spectacle was even better than naked mud wrestling. Marijuana lubed the orgiastic imagination. As he wrote, “Mary-Jane, at least for me, in that first life of smoking it, was the door back to sex, which had become again all I had and all I wanted.” He took to smoking the stuff nightly and popping Seconal to come down. Mailer supposed himself a prodigious seer on marijuana: he “could discover new experience in the lines of [his] text like a hermit savoring the revelation of Scripture.”
Mailer felt obliged to make literature, or better yet a demonic theoretical broadside, out of his hump-piles and pungent smoke. His notorious essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” (1957) celebrates the men and women who, in the teeth of death as it awaits them in the 20th century, by thermonuclear blast, extermination camp, or cancer, “set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self,” “encourage the psychopath in [themselves]?.?.?.?[and] explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore -sickness.”
The passage that horrified even sometime admirers and sealed Mailer’s stinking notoriety justifies and indeed honors the murder of a 50-year-old candy-store owner by two young hoodlums, for so apparently cowardly an act requires the courage of facing down the law: “The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly.” To dare the unknown marks Mailer’s consummately vital man, the man who really knows how to live. Energy rather than goodness is the measure of his worth.
The increasing wantonness of his life and the unhinged abandon of his thought were the portent of something truly loathsome. At a Saturday-night party in November 1960, after Adele locked herself in the bathroom with another woman, the drunken and disoriented Mailer stabbed his wife, piercing the pericardial sac and nearly killing her. While she lay in the hospital, he wandered the city and even appeared on a television show with Mike Wallace, advocating that jousting tournaments (horses, armor, lances) for juvenile delinquents be held in Central Park. When he did go to the hospital looking for Adele, the police arrested him. Despite Mailer’s protests that if he were committed to a mental hospital, his writing would be forever suspect—“My pride is that I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of”—the magistrate sent him off to Bellevue; after 17 days of observation, the medical authorities declared him sane. He wound up pleading guilty to the stabbing and received a suspended sentence and three years’ probation. In 1961, at the 92nd Street Y, he read the following poem: “So long as you use a knife there’s some love left.”
Mailer could not shut up about the psychic benefits of wife-killing. In his 1965 novel, An American Dream, Stephen Rojack, war hero, former congressman, professor of existential psychology, and host of a television talk show, strangles his wife and throws her body from a high-rise balcony when she intimates that she is given to performing anilingus on her three lovers, a treat Rojack thought she reserved just for him. Immediately after the murder, Rojack happens upon his wife’s German maid masturbating, and Rojack gives her some of what she really wants, alternating vaginal intercourse and buggery, calling her a Nazi “out of I knew not what” at the opportune moment:
There was a high private pleasure in plugging a Nazi, there was something clean despite all—I felt as if I were gliding in the clear air above Luther’s jakes and she was loose and free, very loose and very free, as if this were finally her natural act: a host of the Devil’s best gifts were coming to me, mendacity, guile, a fine-edged cupidity [sic] for the stroke which steals, the wit to trick authority. I felt like a thief, a great thief.
Rojack outwits a shrewd detective, bunks down with a beautiful nightclub singer, throws her menacing boyfriend, a black pimp, down the stairs, takes a stroll around a parapet many stories above the street—in short, lives the full-moon psychopath fantasy that cures all cancer. An American Dream is a boys’ book with pretensions to profound insight about sex, death, wealth, power, and the national psyche—Spicy Detective making believe it is Dostoyevsky.
Not all violence is salutary in Mailer’s world, however. The savagery at the heart of everyday America, the America of plastic, corporate greed, cancer, and napalm, is coated in dog-spew obscenity and deep-fried in the 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam? This book, which Mailer believed to be among the 10 funniest since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, displays his cloacal sensibility at its most fragrant. A rich Texas corporate honcho, his teenage son, and the son’s best friend go on a hunting trip to the Brooks Range in Alaska and discover the sport in coming as near as possible to roaring death by grizzly maw; the boys impugn each other’s masculinity with excrementitious taunts and come within a hair of homosexual embrace one night when they are off in the wilderness together.
Vietnam gets no mention until the final page, when the reader is informed that the boys are “off to see the wizard” precisely there. “Vietnam, hot damn.” There is not a hint of serious intelligence in Mailer’s dim fable; it is merely literary in the worst sense, utterly disconnected from the real-world warfare whose psychic secrets it purports to disclose. And it does take obscenity, which can be harrowing or amusing in able hands, to a new low.
The Armies of the Night (1968), his firsthand account of the antiwar march on the Pentagon, earned Mailer the supreme accolades of his career: it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and critics proclaimed Mailer a great social commentator and formal innovator, the latter for his placing himself at the center of historic events. But at his most florid heights, speaking of himself in the third person, Mailer sounds magniloquently vapid as ever:
He’d come to decide that the center of America might be insane. The country had been living with a controlled, even fiercely controlled, schizophrenia which had been deepening with the years.?.?.?.?For the center of Christianity was a mystery, a son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology.?.?.?.?The love of the Mystery of Christ?.?.?.?and the love of no Mystery whatsoever had brought the country to a state of suppressed schizophrenia so deep that the foul brutalities of the war in Vietnam were the only temporary cure possible for the condition—since the expression of brutality offers a definite if temporary relief to the schizophrenic. So the average good Christian American secretly loved the war in Vietnam.
This is, of course, the sick vicarious violence of the repressed Square, as against the thrilling murderous spasm of the fully alive Hipster. Mailer had probably not met an average good Christian American in years, but that does not stop him from professing to peer deep into the poor slob’s heart of darkness. The ludicrous analysis comes no closer than his previous efforts to an understanding of the war. Why were we in Vietnam? Like his innumerable admirers, Mailer hadn’t a clue.
Mailer would turn his hand to extensive political writing over the next few years, turning out a pair of books on the 1968 and 1972 Republican and Democratic national conventions, Miami and the Siege of Chicago and St. George and the Godfather, respectively. They are notable principally for their flamboyant and derivative excesses of style, as the flimflam orotundities of a bad James Agee imitation encounter the razzmatazz monkeyshines of Tom Wolfe. And he could not in good faith deflect his attention from sexual politics—the women’s movement catching fire in the early 1970s. Mailer was on his fourth wife by then, his affairs were legion, and he considered himself quite the authority on what was good for women, as he made clear in The Prisoner of Sex (1971). He took apart the glaring dishonesties in Kate Millet’s literary analysis of Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence and inveighed against the widely unsuspected evils of contraception, masturbation, and the clitoral orgasm.
Where Mailer excelled in the work of that time was in his writing on boxing. Here his fascination with manly violence found a more or less civilized focus; great heavyweights replaced lawless brutes at the apex of his regard. In The Fight (1975), his marvelous book about the Rumble in the Jungle, the bout held in Zaire in which the deft and cunning Muhammad Ali defeated the armor-plated and terrifying George Foreman, it is clear that Mailer would love to be Ali, “the Prince of Heaven,” if only that did not mean he would have to give up being Mailer.
Violence remained Mailer’s obsession and his literary bread and butter. His most ambitious work since The Naked and the Dead was The Executioner’s Song (1979), a 1,056-page amalgam of reportage and novel based on the life and death of Gary Gilmore, who murdered two strangers in Utah because he had to kill somebody when his girlfriend left him and who insisted despite the state’s best efforts that he be executed in relatively short order.
The book is among Mailer’s most impressive efforts and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, though there were some who wondered whether fiction is what it was. His harshest critics insist the novel can hardly be said to have been written at all, for the movie producer and literary impresario Lawrence Schiller turned over thousands of pages of interviews for Mailer’s use; but this criticism is unjust. Mailer shaped his and Schiller’s material into a ripping narrative, in a prose style new to him, stripped down to the Hemingway-like essentials. Even so, the novel seems swollen and charmed by evil beside the real American classic of true-crime fiction, Truman Capote’s 340-page “nonfiction novel” about the murders of four members of a prosperous family in rural Kansas, In Cold Blood (1965).
Capote showed Mailer the way by sympathetically detailing the character of one of the murderers, who like Gilmore seemed fated to suffer and inflict hell on earth; but Capote also did what Mailer did not, which was to portray the victims in their appealing humanity, to render the full horror of their final moments, and to emphasize what was lost by their deaths. With the rapt intensity of a man staring into a cobra’s eyes, Mailer gazes into and cannot look away from human malignancy, which seems the most riveting subject a writer can have and which he congratulates himself for searching so boldly again and again. If only he did not love it so.
In 1978, Jack Henry Abbott, a federal prisoner in Marion, Illinois, a virtually lifelong inmate of some institution or other, serving a 20-year term for murdering another prisoner, heard of Mailer’s interest in Gary Gilmore and initiated a correspondence. Mailer visited him the next year and brought him a copy of The Executioner’s Song. He admired Abbott’s writing and helped arrange an advance for a book of his letters, which was published as In the Belly of the Beast in 1981. Mailer’s offering Abbott a job as his research assistant was instrumental in securing his parole that year.
A month after Abbott was sprung, he got into an argument on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with a young Cuban waiter and aspiring actor, Richard Adan, over the use of a restaurant bathroom, and he stabbed Adan through the heart. “Culture is worth a little risk,” Mailer averred. “I am willing to gamble with certain elements in society to save this man’s talent.” Eventually he would admit to having blood on his hands. Understanding came too late. He had toyed with enormities for much of his adult life, and it took his complicity in an utterly senseless murder to bring him, at least temporarily, to contrition.
Mailer had one more interesting if deeply flawed novel in him, Harlot’s Ghost (1991).1 In this 1,310-page blockbuster, which relates a CIA agent’s adventures in 1950’s Berlin, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis, Mailer obviously wants to be the man who understands courage, sex, wealth, and power with the intimacy of a true initiate. Mailer has a real fascination with the gears and levers that run the world’s great secret machinery, and he is willing to give the intelligence agents he portrays, who are naturally great villains to his friends on the Left, the chance to present their anti-Communist case without undue irony directed at their insensate evil.
Still, Mailer cannot control his sheer boyish vulgarity. When Herrick Hubbard, the hero and narrator, hears of President Kennedy’s assassination, he calls Modene Murphy, a luscious sometime airline stewardess whom he had been ordered to seduce: she was Kennedy’s mistress and the Agency wanted to dig up all it could on Jack. Mailer sees himself as writing for the ages, like Hugo describing the Battle of Waterloo or Tolstoy the burning of Moscow; but at the climactic moments, his efforts prove to be potboiler swill served on a bed of journalism.
In the republic at twilight, where the cult of the self is our one true faith and energy has superseded virtue as the object of our reverence, it was inevitable that someone like Norman Mailer should become America’s most celebrated man of letters. He pursued greatness with unrivaled perfervid longing, aching to produce the masterwork that would place him among the immortals. And even to be a great writer was not enough: he was determined to be known for a great man, as manly a man as there ever was, a towering oaken totem of courage and erotic force.
But he was also hell-bent on fame as the whimsical passions of the hour dispensed it, craving the narcotic of his outsize image in the press and on television, perpetually measuring his accomplishment against those of his contemporaries and invariably proclaiming himself biggest.
His vulgarity was a more significant factor in his allure than whatever he possessed of high aspiration. The way his most serious ambition was joined to his crassest need made him singularly appealing to a literary public that fed on nonsensical political ideas and fantasies of artistic superstardom, with its fabulous perquisites of cultural ubiquity, wealth, and hot sex.
He fancied himself one of the big thinkers, and most of his ideas were not only bad but appalling; for he lived largely for the body’s pleasures, actual and vicarious, and adopted ideas that serviced those pleasures. T.S. Eliot remarked that a great writer creates the taste by which he is appreciated; Mailer helped create the moral confusion amid which he was glorified—not quite what Eliot had in mind.
Until he is forgotten, Mailer should be remembered not only in a fool’s cap and bells but also in a scoundrel’s midnight black. For in an age crawling with intellectual folly, he was one of the reigning dunces, even his best works were shot through with adolescent fatuities, while the worst of his words and deeds were stupid and vicious without bottom. One is torn between wishing that his memory would disappear immediately and wanting his remains to hang at the crossroads as a lasting reminder to others.
1 Ancient Evenings (1983), The Gospel According to the Son (1997)—yes, that Son—and The Castle in the Forest (2007)—the first volume of a projected seven on the life of Hitler—were all fiascos.