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Norman Mailer Speaks to America From Beyond the Grave

A new authorized biography and collection of essays show why the literary figure has been so mythologized, reviled, and revered

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Norman Mailer, 1987. (AFP/Getty Images)
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This summer, I spent a string of rainy days exploring Norman Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights home—or to be precise—an exact replica of it, re-constructed and assembled in the artist Matthew Barney’s studio in Long Island City. From the dining-room table set on a faded carpet, to Mailer’s own library neatly installed on aging bookshelves, no detail had been overlooked. The simplicity of Mailer’s home stood in stark contrast to the flourishes that Barney, whose gallery I work for, had added—massive slabs of glistening salt, a feast caught in decay, a decadent golden throne enshrined in a room all its own—elements that in many ways conjured the spirit of Mailer, or Mailer’s work, even more than the actual interior of his home. There, I watched as Barney filmed a movie based loosely on Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, but which, more significantly, was inspired by the mythology of Mailer himself.

In the cavernous warehouse space, surrounded by Barney’s contemporary vision of Mailer’s ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, Mailer’s most difficult work of fiction came to life. “My dad said that Matthew Barney was one of the few geniuses that he met,” Mailer’s youngest son John Buffalo Mailer said in a phone interview. Mailer and Barney had worked together during Mailer’s life, most notably in Cremaster 2, a film based partially on Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, in which Mailer played Barney’s longtime muse Houdini. Mailer loathed page turners, always preferring to challenge the reader rather than giving in to more conventional fiction, a tact mirrored in Barney’s films that manipulate time, introduce multiple versions of the same character, and insist upon wholehearted engagement from the viewer.

No work of Mailer’s more effectively espouses this belief than Ancient Evenings, a notoriously challenging book that leads the reader through 100 rigorous and sometimes illogical-seeming pages before the narrative even begins. Watching Barney grapple with this unappreciated tome of Mailer’s writing I couldn’t help but be struck by the way in which Mailer’s willingness to take on complex and oftentimes unpopular subject matter had not only strengthened his legacy, but promised that his work would forever be revived and re-contexualized by generations of artists to come.

Though it is hard to say that Mailer, who died in 2007, has ever disappeared—having been referenced in recent pop culture contexts as disparate as an episode of The Simpsons to a Jay Z-remixed Kanye West song—it seems fair to say that the publication of his authorized biography and a posthumous collection of his essays means that his work is now being re-examined outside the context of the larger-than-life character that the writer created and lived. This week, J. Michael Lennon’s biography Norman Mailer: A Double Lifethe first biography to be written by someone with full access to his archives, letters, unpublished manuscripts, and the breadth of his immediate and extended family—as well as Mind of An Outlaw: Selected Essays, by Mailer, will be published by Simon & Schuster and Random House, respectively. Together, the works highlight the way that his immersive approach to both fiction and nonfiction writing was inextricably linked to his sometimes outlandish public persona, and offer insight into why Mailer, more than any other literary figure of his era, has been so mythologized, reviled, and revered.

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Mailer had a temper and was fast to throw a punch or quip a snide remark, often at the expense of his reputation. He is famous for stabbing his second wife, Adele Morales; addressing the feminists in his audience at the University of California, Berkeley, as “obedient little bitches” before going on to suggest that “a little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul”; and assaulting Gore Vidal at a party. As Mailer once wrote about himself: “To be the center of any situation was, he sometimes thought, the real marrow of his bone—better to expire as a devil in the fire than an angel in the wings.”

Norman Kingsley Mailer, the author of more than 40 books, encompassing fiction, journalism, poetry, essays, and interview collections, was a prolific and brilliant writer, but he is nearly as well known for his charisma and instigative prodding, his mayoral candidacy and threatened presidential run, his love of boxing, his insatiable promiscuity, and his penchant for settling scores with a firm head-butt. These competing facets of his personality—at once his greatest asset and his hopeless Achilles heel—created fantastic and inspired friction in all aspects of his life.

He was born in Brooklyn on Jan. 21, 1923, to first-generation Jewish immigrants Fan and Barney Mailer. Fan believed that her “little genius” was destined for greatness (which she attributed to her father, the Talmudic-scholar Rabbi Hyman [Chaim] Jehuda Schneider). Both Mailer and his sister Barbara were raised with steely self-confidence, despite the anti-Semitism that plagued their neighborhood. Drawn to writing at an early age, Mailer began crafting stories at 7 or 8, a hobby that developed into an all-consuming passion by his college years.

Lennon—who met Mailer in 1972 as a graduate student, and began to collaborate with the author in 1982—attributes special importance to Mailer’s time at Harvard, where the author graduated with a degree in Engineering Sciences but determined that he wanted to be a writer. Mailer found early literary success in college, landing an editorial position at Harvard’s The Advocate, winning Story magazine’s national contest, and receiving interest in his work from Rinehart & Co. publishing house, leading to what Lennon described in a phone conversation as a “launch point of his literary career.”

Mailer’s sprint to success, however, was halted by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following graduation, Mailer received his draft notice and reported for basic training in early April. But rather than deter his career, his experience in the army was life-defining, leading to the publication of his first best-seller, and establishing his talent for turning real-life experiences into sweeping narratives.

Though the subject matter that Mailer explored was diverse—from Marilyn Monroe and Lee Harvey Oswald to the CIA, the hipsters, and the Hitler Youth—a common thread weaves throughout, a deep interest in penetrating the heart of his subject through a series of carefully drawn individual portraits. As Mailer wrote in a letter to the writer Vance Bourjaily in 1953, “My experience with all three novels now has been one of starting with characters, finding things for them to do, and then … I discover what my damn theme is.” Though he wrote this at age 30, this was nonetheless a tactic he employed for the rest of his career.

Mailer was fascinated by all types of people, and nearly all of his stories are told through the lens of characters who struggle with the lofty novelistic subjects of morality, love, and selfhood while mired in the ubiquitous shit and piss of life, as he might say. Hauling antitank guns to the front in The Naked and the Dead, the soldier Wyman reflects on his misery. “He had had vague dreams about being a hero … but he had always imagined combat as exciting, with no misery and no physical exertion. He dreamed of himself charging across a field in the face of many machine guns; but in the dream there was no stitch in his side from running too far while bearing too much weight.” Portraying his characters much as he publicly portrayed himself—forgoing the heroic for the real and the angelic for the honest—Mailer brought to life individuals who were obviously flawed but who were all the more sympathetic for their attempts at truth-telling.

Mailer became notorious for writing about himself in the third person, most frequently in his journalism, but much of his fiction, as well, reveals the palimpsest of his presence in ways that are equally telling. As Charles Eitel explains to his soon-to-be lover Elana in The Deer Park: “When I was younger, I used to think it was ugly, even unclean I suppose, that a man who thought he was in love would find himself using the same words with one girl after another. Yet there’s nothing wrong about it really. The only true faithfulness people have is toward emotions they’re trying to recapture.” In An American Dream Stephen Rojack reflects on a time when he opted not to fight at a party. Upon returning home, his wife accuses him of being afraid, which he at first denies, but then: “When I looked into myself I was not certain any longer that there had been no fear. So it took prominence for me. I did not know any longer.” Scraping away at his characters until he reveals their deepest self, Mailer concedes the honest, though often unpopular, truths of their personalities, and by extension his own.

As for the “damn theme,” though smaller, disparate themes found traction in each work, a look at his oeuvre as a whole, as Lennon’s biography quietly asserts, is enough to assure that the theme was nothing less ambitious than the grand, sweeping subject of America itself; a sequel of sorts, to John Dos Passos’ hefty trilogy U.S.A., a book that Mailer admired tremendously. As Lennon describes it, “[U.S.A.] was so long, it was detailed, and it had a mixture of historical and fictional characters. People were coming in and out of the narrative, sort of like in life where you see someone and then don’t see them again for ten years. Mailer felt that was a really realistic way to depict life.”

In his best works—among them The Naked and the Dead, The Executioner’s Song, Harlot’s Ghost, The Armies of the Night, and The Castle in the Forest—Mailer employs versions of this same methodology. The Naked and the Dead does not depict true historical characters, but each soldier was based at least loosely on one or an amalgamation of several men whom Mailer encountered during the war, while Harlot’s Ghost and An American Dream more explicitly weave together a cast of both fictional and historical characters. In doing so, Mailer allowed for his works to offer a complex portrait of the second half of 20th century, giving voice to World War II soldiers, alleged Communist film directors, the presidential assassin, and a murderer on death row. Uninterested in a life that kept him chained in the Ivory Tower, Mailer believed in first-hand exploration. As he wrote to writer Bruce Dexter in 1985, “I always was my own experiment,” a sentiment that Lennon affirms. “He wanted to know about forbidden things,” said Lennon. “He lived a very authentic life full of experiment.”

A Cape Cod native, Lennon kept a house in Provincetown, and for the last three years of Mailer’s life they both lived there full time, seeing each other nearly every day. Despite the friendship, Lennon manages to resist inserting a personal agenda into the biography and, as such, it reads as a rare and true portrait of the writer, who insisted that his biographer “put everything in.”

“There are some very difficult things in there,” said Lennon. “The Jack Abbot affair [a prisoner who committed murder shortly after Mailer helped free him] and his struggle as a young man to decide if he could keep writing or not. And of course his last marriage, his great marriage with Norris almost went on the rocks because of his philandering.” Nonetheless, unlike many other accounts of Mailer, a certain softness pervades the telling, hinting at a bit of whimsy behind many of Mailer’s most outlandish actions, which Mailer’s son, John Buffalo, attributes to the many perspectives that Lennon was able to glean from his firsthand research. “If you want to look at a truth, look at the comparison of the lives. With each incident that he covers he has four or five different perspectives.” As John Buffalo Mailer suggests, the biography is so successful because of its breadth. “One really gets a sense of the entire scope of Norman’s vision of existence, of America, of the world. While his topics seem to be all over the place there is a cohesion to the philosophical view of existence, laid out so specifically with each work.”

It is the cohesiveness of this vision as revealed through the biography as well as the collection of essays that foregrounds Mailer’s ability to craft nonfiction pieces that perfectly capture his subject. Though Mailer struggled throughout his life with his writing and wrestled with personal foibles, he rarely, if ever, doubted his convictions, a trait rare among people, especially writers. Looking at the full Mailer—his work, his newest collection of essays, and the portrait that Lennon has drawn of him—it seems as though the significance of his legacy is the vision of America that he has left us with, one that still presents us with surprising insights. He had an insatiable curiosity and a willingness to confront everything and everyone head on, traits that at times caused him to suffer, but which still animate his work. “He was so ahead of his time,” said his son. “We are still catching up with him.”

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Norman Mailer Speaks to America From Beyond the Grave

A new authorized biography and collection of essays show why the literary figure has been so mythologized, reviled, and revered