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The Author as Celebrity / Norman Mailer can�t resist seeing his name in print - whether he�s writing or being written about

There's no way this can be Norman Mailer.

Not this little guy whose hobble gives him the look of a cowpoke too long

in the saddle. Not this old fella with the canes and hearing aid, with the

arthritic joints and the cataracts.

And emphatically not this gentleman whose cordiality is expansive, this

elder statesman who laughs without prompting at his earlier misadventures, this

positively puppyish grandfather who coos over the phone to a granddaughter.

But, indeed, this is Norman Mailer, that most pugnacious of writers, as

well known to the public for his bad-boy behavior as for his books.

This is the same man who in 1960 stabbed and nearly killed his second wife,

Adele Morales; who would insult audiences with trash talk; who would pick

fights with literary rivals as readily as pick metaphors.

Defining the world as a realm of combat and competition, Mailer vowed to

reign as heavyweight champ. His feuds with Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe and feminist

icons Kate Millett and Germaine Greer were legendary. His pronouncements in

Esquire magazine about fellow writers - "the talent in the room" - were

notoriously dismissive.

Amid all the public posturing - including quixotic and comical campaigns

for mayor of New York in 1960 and 1969 - it was sometimes hard to remember that

Mailer was, in fact, one of the most gifted American writers of the generation

that came of age during World War II.

"The Naked and the Dead," the book that launched Mailer's career in 1948 at

age 25, is still regarded as one of the finest novels to emerge from that

war. "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" and "Armies of the Night," those

high-water marks of '60s New Journalism, earned him two National Book Awards

and a Pulitzer Prize. "The Executioner's Song," that genre-crossing account of

convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, garnered another Pulitzer.

No doubt one of the reasons for the transformation from brawler to diplomat

is age. Mailer- watchers may be shocked to learn that the author celebrated

his 80th birthday on the last day of January.

It's a mellow, avuncular Mailer who greets a visitor to his Brooklyn

Heights apartment a few days before the big event. He's a man eager to praise

his peers and pass on writing tips to apprentice writers.

This fourth-floor walk-up is studded with photos of his nine children from

six marriages, some of whom live here. The view of the lower Manhattan skyline

and New York Harbor is breathtaking, with the setting sun casting an orange

glow over the Statue of Liberty.

Mailer spends most of his time not here but at his other home in

Provincetown, on Cape Cod. But he's in town now to tout his latest book, "The

Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing" (Random House, $24.95), a collection of

interview excerpts, essays and assorted ruminations.

In this book he recounts his transition from soldier to bestselling author,

the perils of fame, the outrages of critics, the loneliness of staring at the

empty page. He laments the declining role of books in our culture; extols the

virtues of "Huckleberry Finn," Hemingway, Tolstoy and Henry Miller; offers

faint praise for younger faces like "The Corrections" author Jonathan Franzen.

Despite the milestone birthday, Mailer isn't about to close up shop. He

says he's written several hundred pages of "an ambitious novel," but he won't

say any more about it.

"Either I'll finish it, or it'll finish me," he jokes.

"I don't feel gloomy about that. When you look at the track record, the

best of writers didn't do much work once they're in their 80s. Isaac Bashevis

Singer did some notable work, but it wasn't up to his finest.

"It's an odd feeling. I know how an old athlete feels. He knows more than

he ever knew before, but the body isn't quite up to what he knows."

Does he have to ration his energy now?

"It's a matter of waiting," he replies. "I could go in there for three

hours and maybe get an hour and a half of work done because nothing happens for

an hour. I've learned how to be patient.

"I don't know anything about fishing, except that I understand patience is

one of the skills of the angler. There's no use writing until you're ready to

write."

With his very first book, Mailer was transformed from the anonymity of

aspiring writer to the celebrity of bestselling author. In retrospect, he

grants, early fame wasn't entirely a blessing.

"I was unequipped to be a success," he says. "I knew much more about

writing than I did about life.... Looking back, I find it comic. But it did

make me an expert about changes in identity," which became a major theme in his

books on Gilmore, Marilyn Monroe and CIA spies.

Some critics contend that if Mailer had put as much effort into the writing

as he did into embellishing the public persona, his literary legacy would be

far richer.

"You develop a perverse appetite for publicity, even though you hate it,"

Mailer admits. "I can't pretend to be pure that way.

"Updike and Roth and Bellow aren't in the papers all the time. When they

are, it's because they're writing something. If I'm in the papers, it's because

[the New York Post's] Page Six has got me urinating between two cars when a

cop goes by.

"Naturally, a writer's always astonished if the critics don't recognize the

extraordinary depth and scope of his writing." He laughs, and then explains

further.

"Publicity doesn't do you any good, no. It produces a certain irascibility

in serious critics. Why won't he stop showing off and do some serious work?

"It may be that a part of me had to show off in order to get out some

serious work. The truth is, we are very often at cross-purposes with ourselves."

By the same token, Mailer did make good use of his oversized ego to explore

the complexities of American culture. In nonfiction books like "Armies of the

Night," on the '60s antiwar protest movement, and "Miami and the Siege of

Chicago," on the presidential campaigns of 1968, he served not merely as

narrator but as active participant in momentous events.

"He has wasted much of his talent on money- spinning inelegance and

fruitless meanderings and quests into the mysteries of sex and destiny," critic

Andrew O'Hagan once observed in the London Review of Books, "but he has also

risked and emboldened his talent by imagining himself at the core of things."

In his book "Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American

Fiction, 1945- 1970," professor Morris Dickstein of Queens College notes that

at the peak of his career "Mailer's gift was to match his own problems with his

intuitive sense of the moment." By combining the techniques of fiction,

journalism and autobiography, he "made himself the protagonist of the story,

filtering history through the prism of his own ambivalence and harnessing the

whole decade [of the '60s] to his own comically refurbished legend."

That his nonfiction tends to be more highly regarded than his novels,

Mailer says, does "hurt a bit."

When the writer is asked which of his books he considers his best, he

initially demurs, comparing himself to a father who dares not single out a

favorite child. But then offers some late works like "Harlot's Ghost," his CIA

novel, and "Ancient Evenings," the novel set in Egypt of the pharaohs, whose

reviews were, at best, mixed.

He declines to predict how his literary reputation might fare in the

future. "I could be considered a very important writer 50 years from now, or I

could be dismissed. It's not in my control. History overrides talent," he says,

noting that harsh political regimes can influence judgments of this sort.

Only when the topic edges into the political arena like this does Mailer

abandon his calm. The prospect of war with Iraq makes him livid. He fears that

it will lead to further militarization of American society, with the attendant

drive for order and conformity.

Despite the sports metaphors that pepper his speech, the old fighter

refuses to get into the game of one-upmanship. "I've paid my dues about that,"

he says referring to Esquire essays from the '60s. "I've mellowed on some of

the people. I was dead wrong on Updike. I was dead wrong on Roth. I was pretty

mean on them, and they've been doing excellent work for years."

And then he cites "cruel reviews" that he and Mary McCarthy wrote of J.D.

Salinger's last book, "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter." He suggests "that

may have been the one-two punch" that silenced the reclusive writer.

As for his own work, does Mailer have any regrets? "Not really," he says.

"I did the best work I could do. The question doesn't torment me."

He cites a story about Picasso scribbling a drawing on a sheet of paper for

a friend who had requested a loan. When the other man expressed dismay, the

painter replied that there was no such thing as "a bad Picasso."

"I'm not Picasso. I don't aim that high. But I don't think I ever put out a

book that was just thrown away. A couple were casual. But I like them for the

casual tone."

Mailer admits that he reads little of younger writers. "I just find, as I

get older, that I've got to do my own work and not be distracted. ... I

remember we used to feel excluded by Hemingway and Faulkner. I was annoyed. Why

weren't they paying attention to us? Now I know exactly why.

"It's a choice. I could spend my remaining years doing critical work, which

I enjoy. But I still want to do more of my own writing. At my age, it's

becoming pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition."

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