Oh Norman, My Norman

The Id (and Imp) of American Literature


Who was Mailer? He growled, boxed, inhabited the Earth. Breslin: ‘People think he was a crazed creature—he wasn’t.’ MORE …

His New York Jewish Public Self Was American Triumph


The subject was old age. Norman Mailer said there was a grace in aging. He didn’t feel as angry or self-involved as he once did; he wasn’t wrapped up in his disappointments. He had set out to be a “major historical figure,” like the literary matinee idols of his youth, Steinbeck and Hemingway. That hadn’t happened. He accepted that he was a writer. MORE …

The Lion in Winter: Five Snapshots


1. St. Michael’s Academy, North Ayrshire, Scotland, 1983</b

My English teacher, Mr. Campbell, said he’d never read anything by Norman Mailer. Mr. Campbell felt the world was filled with quite enough decadence and horror, arguing that we 15-year-olds should better place our faith in the works of Robert Burns and what he called “the emotional poets.” But I was on to my third reading of The Armies of the Night by then, and felt very strongly that Robert Burns and Norman Mailer could be very friendly. I insisted to Mr. Campbell that I must forgo the mountain daisies for a term to work on a long essay on Norman Mailer and William Styron. Mr. Campbell knew a look of rebellion when he saw one. The Irish Sea was only two miles from the classroom, and he knew some of us were tempted by that sorry world beyond—the world of America. “Go your own way,” he said. “But don’t expect me to open a book by these guys. All they talk about is orgasms.” MORE …

The Courage to Be Wrong


Several years ago I wrote a snotty essay, “The Smiley Face at the End of the Tunnel,” which posited that very good but not great writers of secular disposition often produce an uncommonly “spiritual” novel at the end of their lives. It’s not that they’ve been diagnosed with a fatal illness or have a mysterious intuition that they’re going to be hit by a car. It’s just that mortality looms, so they engage in a late-term bet-hedging that contradicts their earlier, stronger work. The resulting novels are often slight in both length and content, fit only for graduate students. Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace and John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise It Seems were my two best American examples. But it was too easy to cherry-pick from the ranks of the already deceased, and the essay required a currently spooling proof text. Norman Mailer had just written The Gospel According to the Son, a first-person narrative of the life of Jesus, so I morbidly predicted that he’d never write another book. Bless him, he proved me wrong—as he did so many people throughout his fabulously abundant life and career. MORE …

Oh Norman, My Norman