BY LOUIS MENAND OF THE NEW YORKER No one would say of Norman Mailer, who died on November 10th, at the age of eighty-four, that he hoarded his gift. He was a slugger. He swung at everything, and when he missed he missed by a mile and sometimes ended up on his tush, but when he connected he usually knocked it out of the park. He was immodest about his failures and modest about his successes, which is a healthy trait for a writer and probably a healthy trait for life. He left a huge footprint on American letters.
Mailer was a performer. He went on television talk shows and engaged in public debates and held press conferences; he directed movies and acted in them; he hosted wild parties and wrecked a few; he ran for mayor of New York City and did not finish last. It is important to acknowledge, though, that he was a singularly bad performer. He entertained and he instructed, but he also irritated, alienated, baffled, and appalled. He told dirty jokes that were not funny, and he tried on outfits and accents that were preposterous—a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, he sometimes dressed like a sea captain and affected a Texas drawl—and he had a few moments, deservedly notorious, of disastrous misjudgment. Even people who wished him well, and who loved the fact that, good, bad, or ugly, he was always in the game, were obliged to cope with a lot of moral and intellectual klutziness.
It is a decorum of modern criticism that there is the writer and then there is “the work”—that all that matters is the books, considered as stand-alone verbal artifacts. To apply this decorum to Mailer is to miss the point. Beginning with his comeback book, “Advertisements for Myself,” in 1959, he bled his life and his personality into his writing. He had enjoyed a precocious success eleven years before, with “The Naked and the Dead,” the first of the major Second World War novels, and written in the third-person naturalist style of James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos. Mailer was twenty-five when it came out, and was duly lionized. But then he produced two books that attracted few admirers, “Barbary Shore,” which is sort of about politics, and “The Deer Park,” which is sort of about Hollywood, and he was desperate to have a second act. His solution was to make himself—his opinions, his grievances against the publishing industry, his ambitions—part of his subject. He did this sometimes by inventing outsized fictional alter egos—the bullfighting instructor and Village cocksman Sergius O’Shaughnessy, the wife killer Stephen Rojak—but mostly by making himself a character in his nonfiction writing: “The Armies of the Night” (about the 1967 march on the Pentagon), “The Prisoner of Sex” (about the women’s movement, a phenomenon not readily assimilable to the Mailer cosmological system, at no time a flexible instrument of analysis), “Of a Fire on the Moon” (about the Apollo space mission), “The Fight” (about the Ali-Foreman championship bout in Zaire, and one of Mailer’s finest books).
Some readers found all these Normans obnoxious, a display of egotism. But Mailer was simply making apparent something that modern literature and, in particular, modern journalism preferred to disguise, which is that a book is written by a human being, someone with professional ambitions, financial needs, tastes and distastes, and this human being is part of the story whether he or she appears in the story or not. It was not important for readers to like this person; it was important to know him. Mailer did not put the first person into journalism; he took it out of the closet. MORE
[Illustration by JAY BEVENOUR]
Previously on Phawker…
A MAN IN FULL: Norman Mailer, The Free Library Of Philadelphia, March 27, 2007
BY EVA LIAO Full disclosure: I have never read a Norman Mailer book from cover to cover. And the perfunctory excerpts thrown into the textbooks of my contemporary lit college courses don?t really count. I do know, however, that after writing 45 books and providing decades of titillating fodder for the media — co-founder of the Village Voice, winner of multiple Pulitzer Prizes and devotee of Marilyn Monroe, not to mention the whole wife-stabbing incident — the guy has a reputation. He’s kind of like an older, whiter Salman Rushdie in that half the people obsessed with his salacious personal life and political views have never actually read past the first ten pages of his books. But all of that was a long, long time ago. For a moment or two Tuesday night I worried that perhaps this brittle 84 year old man was too old to be speaking in public as I watched him inch fragilely towards his chair with the assistance of not one, but two separate canes. But then he opened his mouth. A deep, gruffly voice came booming through the microphone full of life, and sarcasm and wit — and suddenly he looked 40 years younger.
Mailer, promoting his first book in four years, Castle in the Forest, has this time chosen Adolf Hitler as his subject — nothing really out of character for a man whose other subjects include Picasso, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jesus. So why Hitler this time around? Because according to Mailer, “he violates an understanding of human nature, a basic notion about humans: While other tyrants had structure, he killed with metaphors. Hitler was a depraved poet.” Mailer continued on, throwing punches and punchlines about every thing from religion (“If I were to be reincarnated I’d want to be a black athlete. But I’d probably just be a cockroach. But the fastest cockroach on earth”) to excrement (“The only things worth writing about are the things that haven’t been nailed. And scatology remains a mystery. I think shit is fascinating.”)
He condemned perma-war as a tactic for keeping society ignorant and afraid while those in power rig the systems of governance for maximum profits that fill the coffers of a select elite. As much of the audience nodded in agreement, Mailer chastised the most obvious culprit, television, for the lack of passion, imagination and engagement in current affairs (that don’t include celebrities) amongst the youth of today. “Mediocrity is taking over the world,” he repeated like a refrain.
Afterwards, while the many fans lined up for their autographed copies of old Mailer collectibles (posters, Life Magazines, withered books) I met a college professor who struck up a conversation with me. When I told her I wrote for a blog, she pretty much accused me of attributing to the mediocrity that Mailer was describing. The downside to attending events with an older crowd is that somebody always feels the need to list all the problems with ‘my’ generation — to my face. The professor’s critique included the following: Young people these days are all confidence and no content, and that confidence is really just a mirage projected by a crass consumer culture. Young adults these days have no humility. And lastly, young adults do not and cannot know what elegance is, being that it takes years of studying the classics to develop that sense. Hence, our mediocrity.
I don’t deny that this woman had some valid points. Sometimes, I do worry about my generation and the ones to follow — what’s to become of us? But despite her cred (unsolicited, she volunteered her credentials: graduated from Penn Magnum Cum Lade, ex-Penn professor, current PCC prof) I can’t help but think she just sounds old and bitter. Besides, judging from Mailer’s legend, he too was over-confident in his youth, cocky even. And the elders of his day said he was all hat and no cattle, too. So, the whole time she was berating me, I couldn’t help thinking that Mailer would have told this woman to go fuck herself — or offered to do it for her. Works for me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eva is 22 years old and from Los Angeles. Her favorite band is the Velvet Underground. That?s why we hired her. Eva goes to Temple. Some would call her an ‘intern,’ but we call her Assistant Editor because we believe the media should empower young people, not belittle and exploit them. But that’s just us.