The Id (and Imp) of American Literature

This made Mailer smile and laugh. “I wasn’t gonna throw a drink at you!” he said. “I just wish you hadn’t said it was a draw.”

And that was the end of it. Just as it had to be, really, because for all that famous recklessness and brutality, Mailer’s pugnacity was playful, more an expression of his stylistic sensibility than a genuine threat to the people around him.

Mailer wasn’t really a fighter at heart, in other words. But he liked playing one because it forced him to test his limits.

Sometimes this ended badly for him. Ringside at Cotto vs. Mosley at Madison Square Garden this past Saturday night, legendary boxing writer and filmmaker Budd Schulberg recalled that Mailer once pulled a head butt on the dean of British sports journalism, Hugh McIlvanney, who retaliated by decking him handily in the jaw.

“Norman went rolling back onto a table of food,” Mr. Schulberg said. “It was a huge mess.”

According to author Sidney Offit, who served on the board of the PEN American Center when Mailer was president of the organization during 1984-1986, that sort of thing only happened when Mailer was around a lot of people. If you got him on his own, Mr. Offit said, he was usually quite gentle and calm.

“He was an absolutely endearing and engaging and supportive friend, one on one, but by the time five people were there, he was making speeches and startling everybody,” Mr. Offit said. “By the time eight people were there he was juggling and swallowing swords and doing a high-wire act.”

Indeed, Mailer was a bold and dedicated performer. Never was that clearer than in 1971, when at age 48 Mailer put on shorts and gloves and got into the ring with Mr. Torres on the set of The Dick Cavett Show. According to Mr. Breslin, Mailer threw all his punches with his eyes closed.

Mailer didn’t care who saw him lose, and that was just as true in his writing as it was in his life. He hid nothing from anyone, letting the whole world watch as he grappled tumultuously with his unwieldy curiosities about evil, God, power, sex and consciousness.

“He was willing to take large risks and make himself look silly,” said novelist William Kennedy, who was a close friend of Mailer’s at the time of his death. “And these large risks were very imaginative leaps into the unknown. He made something out of his fanciful ideas and that was the direction he was always trying to go in, which was to do something that had never been done before.”

A mad scientist who wasn’t afraid to experiment on himself, Mailer did so publicly with gusto and muscle and never worried about looking ridiculous if there was something he really wanted to try.

And so he tried to do a lot of things, like follow his best-selling debut novel The Naked and the Dead with a book about an anti-Stalinist libertarian-anarchist from Brooklyn. And run for mayor of New York City in 1969 (with Mr. Breslin as his running mate) because he thought New York City should secede from the state. And write a book from the perspective of Marilyn Monroe. And make movies and direct plays even though he didn’t really know how. And help start a new weekly newspaper in New York because he thought the dailies were not doing their jobs.

There was often nothing glamorous or graceful in Mailer’s efforts, and though his failures were never out of plain sight, he was never discouraged from tackling his next project with seriousness and imagination. In effect he stood before his critics naked, fundamentally vulnerable despite all his machismo and arrogance.

In so doing he practiced a singular approach to intellectual inquiry—a form of New Journalism more radical and more ambitious than anyone else had dared to try. Whereas Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote had simply applied the mechanical conventions of fiction to the telling of true stories, Mailer went further, all but becoming a fictional character in his own right and hurling himself against the world he was trying to figure out to spectacular, revelatory effect.

“His brain was so big compared to what we were used to in journalism,” Mr. Kennedy said. “He just brought a consciousness of the cosmos to whatever he was writing on. … You didn’t think of what he was doing as just a fictional device or something to bring structural or stylistic newness to a story. He was bringing a mind, and his mind was so fertile and his language was so rich and evocative and provocative, it just made for spectacular reading.”