Was Norman Mailer the last tough guy?

Mailer married six times and had nine children; there were innumerable affairs, parties and arguments. He published 44 books. He never stopped. After one of his children is born, he leaves the hospital and that night begins an affair with his sister-in-la

New Statesman
Fighting spirit: Norman Mailer at a New York gym in 1978. Image: Michael Brennan/Corbis

Norman Mailer: a Double Life
J Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster, 960pp, £30

Norman Mailer spent the summer of 1997 rereading the books he had written over the previous 50 years: novels about the Second World War, Hollywood and ancient Egypt; literary journalism on US politics, anti-war demonstrations and space exploration; polemics against feminism and biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald and Picasso. There were short stories, screenplays and poems. Mailer was approaching his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel that had made his reputation, The Naked and the Dead.

To mark these two occasions, he was planning a book. This was published the following year as The Time of Our Time, a huge anthology of pieces taken from across his career. The extracts are arranged not in the order of their composition but according to the year of the events they describe: so a scene from Mailer’s 1991 novel about the CIA (Harlot’s Ghost) is presented alongside an essay that he wrote in 1959. In doing so, Mailer reshaped his many writings into an idiosyncratic biography of the US in the 20th century.

J Michael Lennon’s new biography of Mailer tries to tell the whole story of the writer’s life. This is no humble ambition. Mailer married six times and had nine children; there were innumerable affairs, parties and arguments. He published 44 books. He never stopped. After one of his children is born, he leaves the hospital and that night begins an affair with his sister-in-law. He is commissioned to write 20,000 words for a magazine article and given a month deadline. He writes 90,000 words instead, which the magazine, Harper’s, publishes – “the longest piece ever published in an American magazine”, according to Lennon – and which then wins the Pulitzer Prize. Mailer was maximal. He ran for mayor of New York twice. He was interviewed 700 times.

Mailer lived his life in order to gather material. He was 19 when the US entered the Second World War and he wondered whether a better novel could be written about the Pacific campaigns or the war in Europe; he started planning his war novel before he was called up in March 1944. During basic training, he took notes “on the sex lives of the other soldiers”. He fought in the Philippines and listed the names of the soldiers he met; they turn up in The Naked and the Dead.

This hunger – to get life into literature –was a constant. He followed The Naked and the Dead with two more novels but soon became frustrated with the restrictions of fiction. In the late 1950s, after an unhappy period in Hollywood trying to write screenplays, he turned to journalism and non-fiction. The so-called New Journalists of the 1960s –Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion –made their pursuit of the story part of the story and wrote themselves into their reports. Mailer’s innovation was an extreme version of this.

In October 1967, he participated in a demonstration at the Pentagon. His account of the march and its aftermath, in which he was arrested and briefly jailed, was published the following year as The Armies of the Night. In it, Mailer uses what he called the “third-person personal”: he refers to himself as “Mailer”. This became his signature technique. In The Fight (1975), his superb account of the boxing match in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, he is “Norman”. In the book’s most moving and revealing scene, “Norman” goes for a midnight run with Ali and his frank, funny account of his pride and nervousness at exercising with the boxer makes Ali seem both greater and more human.

This technique dissolves the barrier on which literary biography depends – between a writer’s life and works. The colourful, confessional presence of Mailer in his books suggests that the writer’s personal life is one more part of the performance and this in turn puts his biographer in an impossible position. Mailer asked J Michael Lennon (his amanuensis for On God) to write this biography and was interviewed frequently by him. The result is that this book reads at times as a weird paraphrase of the story inside Mailer’s head. We are told, for example: “He had the feeling that he’d be busy when he got home in August.” Here, the biographer is the spokesman for Mailer’s inner life; elsewhere, Lennon falls into a pastiche of Mailer’s mannerisms and obsessions. Strangest of all, Lennon refers to himself in the third person: he quotes himself and then identifies the speaker as “Lennon” or “Mike Lennon” without noting that this is himself. This biography, then, is Mailer as rewritten by a lesser Mailer.

Mailer did not write only about himself. His finest book is The Executioner’s Song (1979), which describes the crimes and subsequent execution of a murderer called Gary Gilmore. Mailer does not, however, appear in it. Instead, the book is 1,000 or so pages of beautiful, subtle ventriloquism, as he inhabits the perspectives of the killer, his victims and his lover and then the lawyers and journalists who swarm around the trial. It is possibly the greatest work in all American non-fiction but it reads so like a novel that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

This was Mailer’s gift: in shaping and compiling the great mess of experience and daily life into powerful stories that thwart simple categorisation – or biographical analysis.

Daniel Swift is a senior lecturer in English at the New College of the Humanities