Norman Mailer (who died yesterday at age of 84) always struck me as a generational taste, the literary equivalent of Frank Sinatra — somebody whose artistry was pitched at a frequency mainly audible to an older generation.
Just as I can listen to only a couple of Sinatra albums — Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and once in a while Only the Lonely — without zoning off, I can only take seriously a handful of Mailer’s works, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago and (with big reservations) The Executioner’s Song. Those are, of course, the works that hew most closely to journalism, which is where Mailer’s writing is most shrewd and observant. There are probably gems of observation trapped within the folds of blowsy novels like Ancient Evenings and An American Dream, just as there are probably moments of artistry hidden in Trilogy and She Shot Me Down, but frankly — who gives a shit?
Vivian Gornick, reviewing Mailer’s 1998 greatest hits collection, The Time of Our Time, got nicely to the heart of things:
When he is reviewed these days it is invariably by men who write with respectful love of the way he made them feel when they were young in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and those electric sentences of his first hit the air, galvanizing a famously silent generation into remembering that it is necessary to stay alive inside one’s own skin. It was the force and rhythm of the sentence structure; like poetry, it seemed neither description nor analysis but the thing itself. Really, Mailer’s writing was an astonishing prod in the age of the gray flannel suit. That is, for the men it was a prod.
“For the men,” Gornick says — decidedly not for the women. Just as Ol’ Blue Eyes spent the 1960s and 1970s snarling at the hippies and rockers who transformed the music business, so did Ol’ Pinky Prick rain down scorn upon the feminists who, contrary to his wishes, preferred to be on their feet rather than their backs, or their knees.
After I glumly picked my way through The Time of Our Time, I thought that Mailer had started out by building a private museum of the mind dedicated to his own literary greatness, then demanded that the world present him with subjects worthy of his regard. And when the world failed to yield up a suitably grand topic, Mailer would pick whatever came to hand and set to work pumping it up to suitable proportions, which is how monstrosities like his ludicrous coffee-table book about Marilyn Monroe got written. I doubt that any other New York Times-certified Great Writer has written anything as silly as: “She had learned by Mind to move sex forward — sex was not unlike an advance of little infantrymen of libido sent up to the surface of her skin. She was a general of sex before she knew anything of sexual war.” Much of Mailer’s career — and all of his writing about women and sex — seems designed to illustrate the old line about men having two heads, with most of the blood going to the lower one.
For me, the most revealing piece in The Time of Our Time was Mailer’s appraisal of American Psycho, in which he spends page after page grinding away at Bret Easton Ellis’s already wafer-thin novel until the subject disappears entirely under the weight of the great man’s regard. It was hardly surprising when, late in his career, Mailer turned to fictionalizing Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler — how could such a middlebrow blowhard be expected to refrain from them? And who could be surprised when it turned out that the books, as usual, told us more about the author than the subjects?
Like his longtime nemesis Gore Vidal, Mailer had political ambitions — he ran for mayor of New York on a ticket that included Jimmy Breslin. When Mailer told an interviewer that Vidal would probably make a good president, Vidal cracked: “Norman’s only saying that because he’s reserved the job of Jehovah for himself.” Over the years, Vidal seemed to take a special pleasure in peppering Mailer’s heaving flanks with verbal darts: when Mailer threw a drink in Vidal’s face during a party, Vidal dried his face and drawled, “Once again, words failed him.” That decades-long antagonism, with Mailer playing Costello to Vidal’s Abbott, is the first thing I think of whenever I hear Mailer’s name. Maybe that’s my loss, but I doubt it.
ADDENDUM: Ron reminds me of the other stain on Mailer’s character: the romanticized view of criminality that led him to champion the prison writings of Jack Henry Abbott, a career mutt who was released on parole because of Mailer’s support. Find out what happened next. It ain’t pretty.