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March 2024 Issue [Readings]

Words Fail Norman Mailer

From a September 2023 entry in Air Mail.

My dad, Tom Wolfe, delighted in defending his style of writing and had no qualms about throwing barbs at other writers. In doing so, he was upholding something of a tradition. Sometimes his feuds were personal. Dad had never forgiven Anthony Haden-Guest for offering him up over dinner as a profile subject to Christopher Hitchens, who went on to skewer him in the press. He got his revenge by painting Haden-Guest as the drunken hack Peter Fallow in The Bonfire of the Vanities. At other times, Dad’s feuds concerned the importance to fiction of reports from life. He dismissed John Updike and John Irving as two of his “Three Stooges,” saying of Irving’s 1998 book A Widow for One Year that it was a story “about two neurotic writers who seemed unable to get out of a house in Bridgehampton, Long Island.”

Then there was his third stooge, Norman Mailer, whose son and I had become friends. One evening we were to meet him at Elaine’s. (Mailer had compared reading my father’s novel A Man in Full to “making love to a 300-pound woman. . . . Fall in love, or be asphyxiated,” and my father had dismissed Mailer and Updike as “two old piles of bones.”) When the topic of their feud finally came up, I braced myself. “Oh, your father and I were just having fun with each other!” Mailer said, laughing. But then he barked: “I don’t have a problem with your father—it’s your mother I’m furious with!” I’d never known my mother to fight with anyone. She was the art director of Harper’s Magazine, which published Mailer’s 1971 essay “The Prisoner of Sex.” For the cover of that issue, my mother had chosen to print the title in type so big that she had to break prison-er. “That was the best title I’d ever come up with,” Mailer raged. “And your mother ruined it!”

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March 2024

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