Reviews — From the December 2013 issue

Does Mailer Matter?

The Young Writer and the last literary celebrity

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Discussed in this essay:

Norman Mailer: A Double Life, by J. Michael Lennon. Simon & Schuster. 960 pages. $40.

Mind of an Outlaw: Selected Essays, by Norman Mailer. Random House. 656 pages. $40.

Of course, the Young Writer had known of Mailer all his life. How could he not have known? He’d been raised in New York City, where Mailer twice ran for mayor — the first campaign brought to a premature end by Mailer’s drunken stabbing of his second wife, the next suffering a more conventional death, of voter indifference. All this before the Young Writer’s time, but the legend had persisted.

Norman Mailer, 1977 © Robert Belott/Alamy

Norman Mailer, 1977 © Robert Belott/Alamy

So the Young Writer had known of Mailer, but what had he known, exactly? The man’s last great work, The Executioner’s Song, had appeared in the year of the YW’s birth, after which Mailer had shown poor form by continuing to live and write for almost three decades. He became less a writer than a pundit, with an opinion on every subject that strayed into his view. The opinions themselves — on Bill and Monica, on 9/11, on the Bushes and their Gulf Wars — were predictable and unimaginative or worse: the YW remembered, for example, Mailer’s contention that the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani was a “kamikaze” who’d kept her job by means of racial and gender tokenism. This wasn’t provocative in an interesting way, just ugly and stupid. (That Kakutani was an analphabetic disaster whose continued employment by the paper of record was a genuine mystery only made matters worse: to put things in Mailer’s terms, his opponent was showing her chin, and he had opted to punch below the belt.)

In search of models for literary conduct, the YW looked instead to Pynchon, Gaddis, and DeLillo — writers with every bit of Mailer’s ambition who seemed by their actions to say that little could be won from too much contact with a fallen world. They could not be found on television, extemporizing about plastic or drugs or masturbation. They just wrote novels. Occasionally Mailer still did, too, but they were retellings of the Gospels or of Hitler’s childhood — a television host’s idea of important novelistic subjects.

Yet for all that, Mailer continued to loom, and he seemed to demand a reckoning. How could the Young Writer not engage in some way the man so many regarded as the very image of the serious American novelist? But then, in 2007, Mailer died, and much of his celebrity went with him. Perhaps no reckoning would be required after all. Everything seemed settled until this fall, when two volumes appeared — J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life, and The Mind of an Outlaw, a career-spanning collection of Mailer’s essays. The books had a heft and range that insisted, as Mailer had insisted throughout his life, on his importance. The question naturally presented itself: Did Mailer matter?

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is a deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. His new novel, Arts and Entertainments, will be published next year by Ecco.

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