VJ Books Blog

(The Independent World, Nov. 11, 2008, David Usborne)

Gruff godfather to a generation of post-war US writers could not leave controversy alone.

Norman Mailer, the electric-haired gladiator of American letters who won two Pulitzer Prizes and whose fiery energies repeatedly saw him plunge into the most keenly fought socio-political battles of the post-war years, died in New York yesterday aged 84.


His literary executor, Michael Lennon, said Mailer, who was writing to the very end in his quest to produce the one book that would be considered the Great American Novel, succumbed to acute kidney failure at Mount Sinai Hospital.

The vanishing of the voice of Mailer will leave an unfamiliar quiet in the American intellectual echo-chamber. Whether it was women’s lib (he did not much like it), the Vietnam War, the decline of the written word as entertainment, the tyranny of technology or the latest news from professional boxing, Mailer always had an opinion to share.

Sports fan, essayist, journalist, critic, poet, putative politician, movie-maker and all-around social provocateur, Mailer was a prolific as he was pugnacious. He wrote 40 novels, including The Armies of the Night (1968), about the anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon, and The Executioner’s Song, a sweeping account of the life and death before firing squad of Gary Gilmore, each of which earned him Pulitzer Prizes.

The gruff godfather to a generation of post-war American writers, Mailer was also a pioneer of the “New Journalism” movement, breaking the mould of traditional reporting with a free-form style that melded fact with fiction, and objectivity with subjective bursts. He was a co-founder of The Village Voice in New York and co-carouser with the Beat heroes Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Instantly recognisable to fans in Brooklyn Heights, where he had a home nearly all his life, and in Provincetown, Massachusetts, his preferred domicile in later years, Mailer was perhaps the first of his profession to cross into the parallel world of writer as celebrity. “You develop a perverse appetite for publicity,” he once said, “even though you hate it.”

Over the years, some critics contended his brilliance on the page was sometimes compromised by his other parts – among them the self-aggrandising bully whose personal life was as tumultuous as his mind. Distractions included periods of drinking and drugs, running to be Mayor of his beloved New York, spinning a revolving door of wives (six in all, one of whom, Adele Morales, he stabbed almost fatally), and fathering eight children and adopting one more.

He also repeatedly arm-wrestled with his critics and peers, most frequently Gore Vidal. He was, the novelist Erik Tarloff said, “the crazy uncle of American literature… endearing and obnoxious, graceful and loutish, shrewd and clueless… his own biggest fan and his own worst enemy”.

The author E L Doctorow said: “He was really the great chronicler of his time, the champion of personal reportage. His output was prodigious, his range of interests very wide… His vaunted life as a public figure may have actually impeded serious critical attention to much of his work.”

Jason Epstein, who edited several of Mailer’s books at Random House, said: “He was a very sweet-natured person, despite what some people think. And he was very very patient.”

Mailer was born on 31 January 1923 in New Jersey. The family soon moved to Brooklyn, which he called “the most secure Jewish environment in America”. Prodigiously clever, he entered Harvard at 16. On graduating with a degree in engineering science he was drafted into the army and served as an infantryman in the Philippines. It was an experience that inspired his first book, The Naked and the Dead. Critics lavished praise on the book.

A career of writing was thus launched that, for the rest of his life, seemed to gyrate between brilliant accomplishment and critical disappointment. He also began forays into journalism, which brought even greater success.

Mailer’s star arguably never shone brighter than on publication of his account of the 1968 march on the Pentagon, the moment when souring public opinion began to turn the tide against US involvement in Vietnam.

Mailer began a quixotic campaign to be Mayor of New York in 1969, but his political career was not a success. Nor were his departures into cinema.

Controversy was often a magnet to Mailer. He was flayed for lamenting in 1971 that the feminist movement was draining mystery, romance and “blind, goat-kicking lust” from the business of sex. His remarks, Time magazine said, “earn him a permanent niche in their pantheon of male chauvinist pigs”.

A Luddite in his writing habits – he used paper and pen until the end – Mailer remained productive almost until death. However, after a life lived hard, Mailer had been suffering from ill-health for some time. A few weeks ago, he was admitted to hospital for surgery to remove scarred tissue from a lung.

His ambition – particularly to deliver that defining novel to put him alongside the Hemingways and Tolstoys, perhaps even above them – never deserted him. Nor did he ever express regret for the rough-and-tumble of his life, his tangling with friends or his reputation for arrogance.