"Read Norman Mailer, or get a new tailor.."
"Tough guys don't dance. You had better believe it."
Some writers are interesting purely because of their work. Some writers are interesting because of their lives. And some writers are interesting for both reasons. Norman Mailer is just interesting. He's in his 80s now, still writing big, ambitious novels about the largest themes and figures (Hitler, Jesus), still offering witty, erudite commentary on American politics and culture, still giving entertaining, fascinating interviews. He's been a novelist, playwright, political activist, journalist, screenwriter and director. He played a big part in the creation of a new literary genre. He fought in the Second World War. He's been around many of the great figures of the last century and survived to write about all of it. And hes written a few great books along the way.
"Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing."
His work as a writer has spanned a half a century, and its too complex and contradictory and important for me to attempt to discuss in any depth here. Suffice to say, he established his reputation and his talent with his debut, "The Naked and the Dead", published in 1948, when he was only 25. Its a fictionalised account of a battle on an island during the Pacific Campaign, narrated by a half dozen of the men involved, tracing their lives back in America and their responses to combat and the military. Its an incredibly ambitious book, epic in its scope, brutal and obscene, full of the grit and passion of real life and real people, and the kind of novel it seems insane for a 25 year old to have attempted. But then Mailer had always wanted to write, and had even viewed the War as the opportunity he needed to gather material for his attempt at the "Great American Novel", which became something of a personal lifelong holy grail. "The Naked and the Dead" isn't quite that, but its full of great passages, memorable characters, and stylish writing. It is perhaps the greatest novel of combat in the Pacific Theatre in WWII (alongside James Jones' "The Thin Red Line" and John Hepworth's "The Long Green Shore"). It made Mailer instantly famous in a way no writer could ever hope to be today. His next two novels were commercial and critical disappointments, but both "Barbary Shore" (1951) and "The Deer Park"(1955) have collected admirers over the decades since. "The Deer Park", a novel inspired by Mailer's experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter, seems particularly modern in its focus upon West Coast ennui and debauchery. In both books Mailer experimented with style, always honing and refining his sentences, some of his writing breathtakingly beautiful, some of it horribly turgid. This was the price of his grandstanding ambition, and it was to remain the case throughout his career.
"America is a hurricane, and the only people who do not hear the sound are those fortunate if incredibly stupid and smug White Protestants who live in the center, in the serene eye of the big wind."
Throughout much of the 1950s he became far more interested in journalism and politics than fiction and much of his energy was poured into essay-writing on a variety of subjects. His next major work of fiction was "An American Dream" (1965), written for Esquire in serialized form in an attempt to replicate the experience of reading (or writing like) Charles Dickens. By now, everything Mailer did was controversial, and this novel was criticised for its treatment of women - the protagonist murders his wife - and reviews were generally lukewarm. It is written with a feverish sort of poetry unlike anything Mailer had attempted before, and he would not return to straight fiction of any real ambition until "Ancient Evenings"(1983), his mammoth treatment of ancient Egypt and its reincarnation culture. Since then hes taken on the CIA in "Harlot's Ghost"(1991), Jesus Christ in "The Gospel According to the Son" (1997) and Hitler in "The Castle in the Forest"(2007). These are all problematic books for different reasons, but Mailer remains a gifted stylist with something of the visionary about him, stubbornly forging onwards in pursuit of the stories only he can tell, and there is always some reward to be had from reading his work.
"If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist."
In the 1950s and 60s this need to tell stories - specifically the story of Modern America, its cultural and political life, and how it could be improved - led Mailer to journalism. He wrote a series of counter-cultural essays, the most famous of which is probably "the White Negro"(1957). He co-founded and named The Village Voice in New York in 1955, then set about the co-creation and definition of a new literary genre: the non-fiction novel. Truman Capote had already published "In Cold Blood" (1965) when Mailer emerged with "Armies of the Night", his account of the October 1967 March upon the Pentagon, and the two books taken together did seem to suggest the creation of a new type of literary work. Mailer splits his narrative between fictionalized and historical accounts of the events, casting himself as the protagonist, ensuring the controversy of the book. It was a sensation, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Mailer returned to the genre when he wrote perhaps the ultimate non-fiction novel, and again won a Pulitzer, for "The Executioners Song"(1979) about murderer Gary Gilmore and his execution. For that book, he did no research, paying somebody else to do it while he created his massive tome from the resulting notes. Capote, amongst others, was vicious in his criticism of this, but Mailer inhabits his tale fully and it is never less than convincing and often stunning.
"I'm hostile to men, I'm hostile to women, I'm hostile to cats, to poor cockroaches, I'm afraid of horses."
Mailer was always controversial, ever since the public debate over the "obscenity" of "The Naked and the Dead" (wherein swearwords are rendered - at the publsher's behest - as "Fug" and "Fugging"). The way he lived his life only increased that controversy. He had a massive appetite: for women, for alcohol, for fame, for confrontation. His macho reputation meant that throughout his career he repeatedly found himself in debates with Feminists, with critics, and with fellow writers. Mailer would fight with anyone. His obsession with boxing meant that he liked to make those fights physical, where possible (it also led to one of his greatest books, "The Fight"(1975) about the Rumble in the Jungle). He once head-butted Gore Vidal, and on another occasion bounced a glass tumbler off his head at a party. In 1960, drunk at another party, he stabbed his second wife Adele in the breast with a penknife, and was arrested. He ran for Mayor of New York in 1969, only to sabotage his own campaign after attacking his staff and labelling them "pigs". He had been sacked by the Village Voice because he was too bullying, too aggressive. In 1980 he became involved in a campaign to secure parole for Jack Abbott, who had been imprisoned for murder. The two exchanged letters while Abbott was in prison and Mailer arranged for these to be published as "The Belly of the Beast". Abbott got the parole he sought and six weeks after his release, he stabbed a restaurant employee in the chest after a petty argument. The man died, Abbott went on the run, was eventually caught and imprisoned, and Mailer and the group of literary critics who had also supported Abbott, were castigated in the press.
"The natural role of twentieth-century man is anxiety".
There were so many other squabbles and brawls it becomes meaningless to list them. But his fight with actor Rip Torn was caught on camera. Mailer directed a series of experimental films in the late 60s, seemingly motivated by his exploration of drugs and the counter-culture, where he sought to mix fact and fiction, as he had done in his writing, to create a new kind of cinematic realism. In "Maidstone", Mailer himself portrayed a writer running for President. In his original storyline, the writer is assassinated at the films conclusion by Torn's character. But Mailer changed his mind during production, clearly infuriating Torn, who attacks him with a hammer, while rambling about killing "Kingsley, not Mailer" in the film below:
Though the fight is almost upsettingly realistic, the camera captures everything without any interference from the crew, suggesting that there was an element of planning involved, though the blood on both Torn and Mailer is real. Indeed, Torn had to have his ear, which Mailer had bitten into and almost severed, re-attached at a hospital. Mailer later stated that he believed that Torn was acting in the best interest of the film itself, seeing the assassination ending as the only narratively viable conclusion. Torn, in the last few seconds of the clip, tells Mailer that he "pulled" his shots with the hammer, and he had in fact struck Mailer with the flat side, not the head. But the screams of Mailer's children off-camera seems to suggest that not everybody onset knew that the fight was coming. The shoot had been chaotic and violent throughout, with other brawls and intimidation onset, an environment Mailer seemed to relish and indeed worked to create.
"In America all too few blows are struck into flesh. We kill the spirit here, we are experts at that. We use psychic bullets and kill each other cell by cell."
He directed one more film in the 1980s, "Tough Guys Don't Dance"(1987), a strange adaptation of his own pulp novel. But since then hes settled into his old age, squabbling less, blogging for the Huffington Post, and seeming good-natured and philosophical in the interviews he gives to promote his books. He appears to look back on his own extraordinary life with the right mixture of affection, bafflement and mild regret. And when he appears in cinema now, its generally as Norman Mailer, great raconteur and grand old man of American letters. He guest-starred, bizarrely, in an episode of "The Gilmore Girls" and played Harry Houdini for Matthew Barney in "Cremaster", but his most notable appearance in recent times may be the portions of an interview with him used in "When We Were Kings"(1996). Unsurprisingly, the two best tellers of that tale are the writers, Mailer and George Plimpton. Mailer seems happy and amused to be talking about boxing, one of his great loves, and Muhammad Ali, one of his great heroes. He understands the sport well enough to be used as the major elucidator of the tactical battle in the ring, and, of course, hes a fantastic storyteller. He features heavily in this clip:
"Ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision. The more a man can achieve, the more he may be certain that the devil will inhabit a part of his creation."