Norman Mailer: A Double Life | J. Michael Lennon

Brawling, boozing, myth-making

Norman Mailer, in his letters, was fond of quoting a line from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain—“Only the exhaustive can be truly interesting." It is the way Mailer lived his life. He plunged himself into the world, like some fearless diver breaking the placid surface of a warm sea; he accreted wives (six), children (nine), and innumerable lovers, friends, acolytes, enemies, and unbelievers. By the end of his full, extraordinary and, yes, exhaustive life, Mailer was an outsize character from epic fiction.

In a letter to Lillian Ross of The New Yorker magazine, Mailer wrote of Ernest Hemingway: “I know what it is about him I can’t stand. He is always saying in effect I am a man who happens incidentally to be a great writer. I know that all of you will be interested in my noble, strong, and beautiful attempts to exercise myself as a great man, and will be happy when I succeed except for professors, other writers, and assorted cocksuckers." The letter dates from 1952, before Mailer had turned 30, but already four years after he had become the most famous writer in America for his war novel, The Naked And the Dead, which had the effect—in staid, stilted, stubbornly innocent, 1950s America—of a man disembowelling himself at a suburban dinner party.

Mailer’s literary ambition is clear. Already, he confesses to Ross, he feels “very nastily competitive". If Hemingway, in Mailer’s sardonic characterization, is eager to impress that he is a man who happens incidentally to be a great writer, is it too glib to suggest Mailer is a great writer who happens incidentally to be a man? What it means to Mailer to be a man and what it means to him to be a great writer are indivisible, as is no doubt true of Hemingway. For both writers, manliness is a catalysing obsession, the wellspring.

It is a mythical manliness. As with Jorge Luis Borges and the gaucho, and the wide forbidding emptiness of the Pampas, Mailer romanticized the violent principled outlaw. Typical of his thinking is the praise he gave his friend, the novelist James Jones, who, Mailer said, had, “the wisdom of an elegant redneck". Roughneck wisdom, earned from living on the fringes, Mailer could respect, unlike the cossetted banalities offered by intellectuals.

Norman Mailer—A Double Life: Simon &Schuster, 960 pages, Rs899
Norman Mailer—A Double Life: Simon &Schuster, 960 pages, Rs899

Lennon was a friend of Mailer’s for decades. They collaborated on his last book, published in 2007, the year Mailer died at the age of 84, titled, On God: An Uncommon Conversation. Over a dozen memoirs and biographies have been written about Mailer, but Lennon’s is, with his unprecedented access, the most—and here’s that word again—exhaustive. There is more here than you will ever need or want to know about Mailer. But all that detail goes towards building a picture of a man whose fantastic energy went into a life as wild, as dark, as confrontational as anything he could imagine in his books.

Born in 1923, to parents whose families had left the “old world" of Lithuania for the promise of the US and South Africa at the end of the 19th century, Mailer grew up a pampered, adored son in the “lower-middle-class Jewish neighbourhood" of Flatbush in Brooklyn. As a small child, he was given to temper tantrums. What is clear from Mailer’s childhood is that his mother’s love and pride in his genius—Mailer’s IQ score at school was, for his school, an unprecedented 170—resulted in what Lennon charitably describes as a “lopsided ego". His father, a weak-willed gambler and flirt, was less formidable than his mother.

He was an amalgam of dapper charm and frustration fuelled by defeat—defeat at the poker table, defeat at providing for his wife and children. From observing his father, Mailer may have developed his sense that facets of individual personalities are not mere facets but entirely separate people, that each of us is literally more than one person. From his father, Mailer inherited his willingness to adventure, to risk all, but he looked elsewhere, to an older baseball-playing cousin, for masculine role models. Physical ability, physical courage was essential to Mailer’s fantasy of masculinity. It accounts for why he was a sucker for bar brawls, for fistfights as a ritual of male bonding. It accounts perhaps for why he was so keen to assault his rivals, headbutting Gore Vidal, for instance, on more than one occasion.

The cartoon violence—though not on the shameful occasion he stabbed one of his wives—the enormous appetite was part of Mailer’s American myth-making, the American trope of largeness. Joan Didion notes, in her review of Mailer’s magnificent 1979 book The Executioner’s Song, his predilection for writing about people shaped less by individual will than history, geography and some mysterious, mystical force.

She picks out a beautiful, winding sentence: “Brenda was hardly taking into account that it was practically the same route their Mormon great-grandfather took when he jumped off from Missouri with a handcart near to a hundred years ago, and pushed west with all he owned over the prairies, and the passes of the Rockies, to come to rest at Provo in the Mormon Kingdom of Deseret just fifty miles below Salt Lake." Here is all of Mailer’s showy grandiloquence, his desire to find in the story of a murderer—who, in 1977, became the first man executed in America for a decade, defying his executioners with his last words: “Let’s do it"—the entire story of America.

Here is the great American writer at work on the great American novel. Of course, The Executioner’s Song is not a novel but a work of what came to be called “new journalism" in which novelistic techniques are used to report actual events in the hope that some profound novelistic truth can be gleaned rather than journalistic fact-peddling. Mailer was a splendid journalist, his radicalism, his view of the writer’s clarity as a counter to political obfuscation, imbued his pieces with the tone and language of prophecy.

Writers no longer occupy so central a place in the lives of democracies. In India, as in the US, we ignore writers, prefer them to live lives as tame and meek as their words. Mailer shook his fist, was intemperate and if, as this biography shows us, his self-aggrandizing vision sometimes made him ridiculous, it also made him great.

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