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
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
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
"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
"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
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."