The Strange Powers of Norman Mailer


Norman Mailer was sixteen when he discovered John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, and James T. Farrell and, he said later, “formed the desire to be a major writer.” He was twenty-five when his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), made him famous for its narrative force and notorious for its army barracks vocabulary. He became the most celebrated and most reviled American writer of his time, a one-man industry producing stories, novels, poems, sportswriting, essays, histories, and biographies in expansive and exhilarated prose, directing films and plays, making headlines with his eloquent protests against the Vietnam War, his quixotic campaign to be mayor of New York, his outrageous theories of race and sex, his skill as an amateur boxer, his six marriages and uncountable affairs, and the drunken fights, in one of which, on a bourbon-and-pot-addled night, he stabbed his second wife almost to death.

Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images
Norman Mailer, New York City, 1982

He hoped to write a novel great enough to cause “a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” But his best work was his political and cultural reportage: The Armies of the Night (1968), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), and The Executioner’s Song (1979). He insisted on marketing the last of these as fiction, although he said it was “a factual account…as accurate as one can make it.” He spent much of his life reporting facts as if he were writing fiction, and performing—for an audience of gossip columnists and shockable reviewers—a fictional version of his life as though it were fact.

J. Michael Lennon’s biography is the first that interprets Mailer from within, not as a public spectacle. Unlike his predecessors—Mary V. Dearborn, Peter Manso, Carl Rollyson, and others—Lennon was Mailer’s friend and collaborator; he has read 45,000 of his letters, and talked to an enormous population of friends and enemies, from gangsters to editors. He shepherds a prodigious variety of events into well-organized chapters, sometimes cluttered with irrelevant details like the names and addresses of movie houses where Mailer watched gangster films as a teenager.

Lennon is the also first biographer to see that Mailer’s prolific thoughts about gods, devils, and divine forces were at the heart of his work—from the intimations of obscure powers in The Naked and the Dead to the devil who narrates The Castle in the Forest (2007). His whole career was a search for transcendence. The sixteen-year-old Harvard freshman who hoped to be an aeronautical engineer became the mystical prophet thundering against technology—plastics, synthetics, birth control, computers—as a form and cause of cancer in individuals and nations. His last book was a transcript of his talks with Lennon, On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2007), and Lennon’s biography makes clear that the same habits of mind that kept Mailer from writing a great novel were the…

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