Why Mailer Matters

Appreciating the rascal writer who started it all

Norman Kingsley Mailer may have been his own biggest fan and, without doubt, he was his own worst enemy.

By his own invitation, most of his postmortems focused on his literary ranking, or lack of one. It was a comparison Mailer steadily encouraged over the years as he fretted over his status like some aging minor-league ballplayer.

Likewise, you couldn't write his obituary without telling about the near-fatal wife-stabbing, the ear-ripping wrestling match, or the too-trusting mentor who helped win the release of a talented but murderous convict who promptly killed again.

photo: Fred W. McDarrah

In life, he so pissed people off that even Budd Schulberg, the gentle nonagenarian who shared his love of all things boxing, felt no compunction about relating in the pages of the New York Post last week the embarrassing tale of Mailer's graceless performance and flat-out-wrong predictions at the 1962 Floyd Patterson–Sonny Liston bout.

The kindest salute came from gossip columnist Liz Smith, who manages to make a living by never saying an unkind word about anyone, alive or dead. "He was a big soft-hearted guy in my book," wrote the tabloid sweetheart.

But take it from this child of the sixties, someone who cheerfully passed over his last four or five door-stopping novels, but who devoured every word of The Naked and the Dead, Barbary Shore, The Deer Park, An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam?, and most of the big journalistic tomes: No one, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan, loomed larger in the imagination of my particular generational faction than Norman Mailer.

That's why we come to praise Mailer. Not just the writer—others are better equipped for that job—but the feisty, irascible New Yorker who tried to carry a generation on his shoulders: the son of Crown Heights, the Boys High grad who made it to Harvard, the jug-eared young man who went to war, the imaginer of alternative newspapers, the brief inmate of Bellevue's psych ward, the passionate, kamikaze mayoral candidate, the head-butting, put-your-dukes-up saloon intellectual, the perpetual celebrator of himself. We sing of him.

Norman Mailer. Relentless radical, ultimate hipster, pugilist poseur, feminist scourge, outrageous rake. Think of him what you will, his like will not pass this way again.

From the first encounter, his name and words hit like an electric jolt. If his language was sometimes obscure, the shock still measured in megawatts.

The first jolt came from a sighting of a little pamphlet from City Lights Books, the reprint of his essay, "The White Negro." Along with the startling title, it had that Bizarro World cover, a photographic negative of a white man turned black, that leaped out from a table on a long-vanished downtown bookstore. For 50 cents, how could you miss? It was published in 1957, but reading it in the early '60s, it still sounded new and dangerous. "A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life," he had told you by page two, "and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve." If that was the ailment, he also had a prescription: "Hip," he wrote, "is the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle."

Jolt two came in sequential issues of Esquire, to which I subscribed in order to find more Mailer. Parents and friends assumed it was the soft-core porn sprinkled through the pages. The porn didn't hurt, but it was Mailer that mattered. Imitating Dickens, he wrote An American Dream against deadline and it ran across eight issues, each episode steadily more disturbing and intriguing.

Yet it wasn't just the words. It was the man who wrote them.

By the late '60s, he had become an anti-war stalwart. Arrested and jailed in the 1967 march on the Pentagon—the basis for his The Armies of the Night—he kept following the radical trail. In August 1968, he joined a crew of other renegade intellectuals, including Jean Genet and William Burroughs, in Chicago, where they took part in the massive protests at the Democratic Convention. That was my first direct sighting. With a police riot raging one night along Michigan Avenue, three of us had taken sanctuary in the quiet streets behind the Hilton hotel where the delegates were housed. From out of the darkness, a short, barrel-chested man with a massive head swaggered and swayed toward us. He lurched left and then right, the telltale march of the inebriated.

We stopped in our tracks as we recognized the unmistakable form of the famous writer-turned-antiwar-partisan. He halted as well, presumably conducting his ritual head-to-toe survey of potential opponents. "Mr. Mailer," one of us blurted. The ice was broken. "My troops!" he cried as he threw himself around our shoulders one by one. "You're beautiful. You're beautiful. My troops!" We might have followed this drunken general anywhere, but he staggered past us into the night.

A year later, the general was sighted again, back in New York this time, and leading a different brigade. This one was composed of writers who imagined themselves politicians, a boxer or two who thought themselves writers, and a phalanx of political enthusiasts aflame with the hopeless notion that Norman Mailer could somehow be elected mayor of New York, and the more attainable idea that a hell of a lot of fun could be had in trying.

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