Book Review: Norman Mailer: A Double Life
Riveting account of unique writer
Norman Mailer: A Double Life
J Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster, €35.75 (Hardback)
The most memorable actions of Norman Mailer can be summed up in a few brief sentences: he ran for mayor of New York; he stabbed his second wife Adele (not fatally) at a debauched party; and he wrote The Naked And The Dead, his most famous novel, at the tender age of 24.
Still, Mailer, who died six years ago at the age of 84, was much more contradictory and bewildering than even this outline would suggest. He lived a full life, which included six marriages, nine children, the plentiful consumption of alcohol and drugs, a stint in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital and the greedy and tireless pursuit of multiple extra-marital affairs. In this long but never tedious account, which runs to more than 900 pages, Mailer's friend and authorised biographer, J Michael Lennon, has accomplished a rare feat: crafting a true, complicated and fair portrait of his subject.
Mailer was one of the most brilliant and provocative voices of the last century, an often outlandish writer who declined to toe any single party line. His literary output began in 1948 and ended with his death in 2007. During this time, popular culture went through a metamorphosis. When Mailer started out, battles with the censors were commonplace for writers who wanted to test the boundaries of propriety; but by the mid-1960s they had become obsolete. Yet (and despite his enthusiastic support for the sexual revolution of the sixties) Mailer refused to celebrate the shift wholeheartedly. In a typically contrarian statement, he remarked that he was nostalgic "for the days of oppression, because in those days you were ready to become a martyr, you had a sense of importance, you could take yourself seriously, and you were fighting the good fight".
Mailer was born in New Jersey in 1923 to a middle-class Jewish family. He excelled at school and won a place at Harvard, where he developed from a shy, ambitious boy to a young writer determined to make his mark. After college, already married to his first wife, Bea, he served in the US army in the Philippines during the Second World War. Lennon excels at foreshadowing his subject's flaws. When Mailer wrote to Bea, he proclaimed: "I shall never learn to live without you." Lennon notes: "He would, of course, but he could hardly have foreseen it at the time."
It is hard to overstate Mailer's dramatic rise as a writer, or the extremes of both his failures and his triumphs. The Naked And The Dead was an immediate hit and remained on best-seller lists for months. But his next novel, Barbary Shore, flopped and critics were quick to attack. His experience embodies, in a rather extreme way, the rewards and travails of making a living as an artist. Again and again, Mailer fell flat in critics' eyes, enduring a public punishment all the more devastating given the heights of his early success.
The strains of his lifestyle gradually became apparent. Mailer drank copiously and was heavily reliant at various points on weed, cigarettes and pills to get through the day. His competitiveness with other writers, and his obnoxious behaviour, led to the demise of one friendship after another (though many later revived).
Sometimes it seems as though he just couldn't help himself from going too far. In 1960, for instance, he met John and Jackie Kennedy, and seems to have left a good impression on them both. But a few months later, he wrote to Mrs Kennedy saying that he would like to talk to her in Hyannis Port about his interest in late-18th-Century France. Specifically, Lennon states, he said "he would like to discuss the works of the Marquis de Sade". Unsurprisingly this letter received no reply.
Despite his manifold flaws and transgressions – which Lennon thoroughly explores – Mailer remains a novelist and cultural commentator of unique importance. He helped to found the New York-based Village Voice newspaper and wrote regularly for it (with some gaps, caused by feuds) over several decades, as well as contributing to Esquire, Playboy, Dissent, Commentary and other publications – a blend of high and low-brow that he thoroughly enjoyed. He befriended, knew or battled with all the big names of the time, figures like James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Diane Arbus and Joan Didion.
Mailer glorified the concept of the hipster and foretold the arrival of the sixties sexual revolution, and his portraits of figures like JFK are unparalleled in their wit and insight. In an essay called Superman Comes to the Supermarket, he described the President to be as follows: "One saw him immediately. He had the deep orange-brown suntan of a ski instructor, and when he smiled at the crowd his teeth were amazingly white and clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards." Mailer was upset by Kennedy's assassination, but even tragedy could not quench his drollness. "The Kennedy thing hit very hard here," he wrote in a letter. "Women were crying in the streets (mainly good-looking women)."
What's perhaps most striking about this biography is just how well Lennon draws together the complex tangle of contradictions that Mailer embodied and gives them a logical sheen. He knew his subject well: Lennon first met Mailer in 1972 and remained his close friend, seeing him regularly up until his death. On his website, Lennon says that Mailer felt comfortable in the company of Irish-Americans. "I've always loved the Irish and felt very close to them," Mailer explained at one point. "The Irish have this great bravura, a style, an elegance."
Mailer's most cherished goal was to write another great novel and to "hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters". It was a dream he would not achieve. Despite that, and for all his faults, Mailer was one of the most interesting and gifted writers of his time. This rich and revealing biography does him justice.