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

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

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

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution