Irascible, Irredeemable, Irresistible

News | Christian Cummins | December 2007 / January 2008

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Norman Mailer died Nov. 10; he was in Vienna in 2002 reading Ernest Hemmingway, the man he most admired (Photo: Keystone)

Norman Mailer was a man of extremes and contradictions: He delighted and offended with equally alacrity, a violent man who was a pacifist in the Vietnam era, who went on to support the first Gulf War for the simple reason that it was a good way to unite an apathetic America. He was a relentless macho who could write with extreme tenderness. He railed like a conservative against abortion and the emancipation of women, but he co-founded the progressive New York paper the Village Voice. He wrote more than 40 books over 7 decades on subjects as diverse as Marilyn Monroe, Ancient Egypt and the early days of Adolf Hitler. He disparaged journalism on the grounds that the story already existed for the writer, yet his best work was fact-based.

Unraveling this bundle of contradictions is difficult, if not impossible, yet it’s a fact that with his passing, the world has lost one of its great literary personalities; and a great fountain of controversial and provocative quotes. The old rogue will probably be missed by even those who enjoyed deriding his work.

The Norman Mailer I met five years ago, when he was in Vienna to receive the Austrian "Ehrenkreuz," was a shrunken literary giant. Just short of his 80th birthday, the double Pulitzer Prize winner’s body, which had always been short and stocky, seemed smaller, diminished. He walked with sticks now, due to chronic arthritis in the knees, and the massive bags under his eyes were beginning to overshadow his square cheek bones. He looked at first glance so vulnerable, utterly unlike the voice I knew from his books. But appearances can be so very deceptive.

His assistants had told me that Mailer was too tired for an interview, so I approached him with circumspection, asking whether I could visit his hotel later when he was feeling better. He fixed me with a pair of piercing blue eyes.

"Tired?" he barked. "Who told you that? Obviously an idiot! Where shall we do it?"

The famous barrel chest may have sunken a bit, but the combative spirit was undiminished. He interrupted our conversation to thunderously rebuke a photographer who had used a flash and aggravated the writer’s sensitive retinas, and then he asked me to organise him a bourbon whiskey from the waitress. Mailer, an addict of boxing, was in pugilistic top-form. I realized I’d just entered the ring with a heavy weight who had me on the ropes before we had even begun. And the mischievous twinkle in those blue eyes told me he knew it. He has become known as a chronicler of America; so I asked him what  he thought of the development of his country post 9/11. He smiled. "We are a great country, just by our dimensions. I see us as the equivalent of 6 foot six inch man, who weighs 300 pounds and every 3 minutes he demands that you agree that his armpits smell wonderful."

Mailer’s critics might turn that quote against him. Like his childhood hero Ernest Hemingway, Mailer’s greatest weakness, perhaps, was his devotion to an often violent form of hyper-masculinity. Feminist Kate Millett famously called him "a prisoner of the virility cult". Like Hemingway, he wrote widely and brilliantly about boxing, but there was increasing evidence that his interest in violence went beyond the aesthetics of literature. He was infamous for instigating head-butting contests at all night parties, he punched fellow writer Gore Vidal and he even assaulted a sailor for suggesting the writer’s dog showed homosexual tendencies.  When he stabbed his second wife Adele Morales in the neck with a pen-knife in an alcohol and drug-fuelled haze and told friends that he’d done it "to relieve her of cancer," he headed for what was surely "a long overdue spell in a mental health clinic."

Perhaps fame came too early and too suddenly. Already a celebratory in the 1940’s, his fame lasted largely unabated for 60 years until his death Nov. 10, at the age of 84. He was just 25 years old when his first book, The Naked and the Dead was published to critical and popular acclaim. It was based on his eighteen months in the Pacific during World War II and was full of unsentimental realism, depicting a gritty world populated by tainted and reluctant heroes who made no effort to disguise their disgust at army life. The work was an instant best seller and some critics ranked it among the best war novels ever written. It was an extraordinary splash for a young writer to make; and probably made the critical indifference to his follow up novels all the harder to stomach. Mailer described his rise to fame as being "like being shot out of cannon." His 5 marriage break-ups and his bouts of alcohol and drug abuse suggest the landing was particularly hard.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of his career was his relationship with the convicted murderer Jack Abbot in the 1980’s. Mailer was instrumental in securing parole for the literary killer, who produced a successful novel In the Belly of the Beast, but soon after his release Abbott murdered a New York waiter. The incident clearly affected Mailer, who admitted "having blood on his hands."

Redemption came in his non-fictional political writing and, although he would have hated to read this, Mailer will be primarily remembered, along with Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, as a founding father of the New Journalism – applying the tools of fiction to the service of fact – rather than as a novelist. When he documented his marched with Vietnam draft-resisters in the idiosyncratic The Armies of the Night, which heavily featured the author but in the third person, he won him his first Pulitzer Prize in 1968. He repeated the feat decades later with The Executioner’s Song, a "nonfiction novel" about the life and death of the murderer Gary Gilmore – a man he had never met. His voice was always interesting, always original, but also always flawed. Perhaps that’s part of what makes his writing interesting to read.

The cultural impact that the prolific and outspoken writer Norman Mailer has had is undeniably huge. It’s a perhaps superficial but nonetheless telling gauge of his profile that he has been mentioned in the lyrics of John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel and, more recently, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sadly for Mailer, who dared compare himself with Tolstoy, his literary impact probably can’t keep pace. He’ll surely never be elevated to the pantheon of literature greats. But then again, Proust locked himself in a cork-lined room to write his faultless prose. Mailer didn’t seem to want to miss out on anything life had to offer him. He wrote, fought, passionately flew glider planes and even launched himself as a politician. He threw himself into life, drank and got drunk on it. Maybe it was his curse, but it’s also his charm.

I feel too that there was a sense of playfulness too in his courting of controversy. I asked him what he thought of George W. Bush: "He has very good body movement. He could have been a ballet dancer. He stoops down to greet a dog and there is something so eloquent about the way he moves his hand. He might be the most graceful President we’ve ever had. That is his talent. His vice in his mind." He looked at me, his blue eyes merrily twinkling with mischief, challenging me to be shocked at his irreverence. It’s those eyes I thought of when I heard the news of his death and I was very sad. A good friend of mine compared Mailer to her own embarrassing uncle: "You can’t really approve of him, but you can’t help liking him."

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