It’s early but still I am going to say mean things. Norman Mailer’s obituaries are, across the board, stunningly cool. The boomer journalists and critics who wrote and edited the Mailer obits seem unmoved by his antics, and less than impressed with the oevre. They chronicle his interest in the “heroic” nature of the writer of “great” novels; his brash, “larger than life” escapades — most of which involve alcohol-fueled violence or outrageousness; and his various political stunts, such as running for mayor of New York, and ranting on at anti-Vietnam rallies. The Washington Post obit that Kathryn linked to yesterday uses the adjective “blustery” in the headline. Not so very Tolstoyan.
Perhaps because I have never been a brash young man with that particular brand of outsized ego, his writing always left me cold. What does it mean that the book taken most seriously — The Naked and the Dead, which came out of his military service in WWII– was his first? Interpreting WWII was a real task for literature — unlike many of his later choices. The feminists (Kate Millet in particular) — grim and humorless as they so often were — were right about the misogyny in his novels. His characterizations of women, particularly in the early novels, begin and end as objects of highly specific male lust. His 6 marriages are not an impressive testament to his humanity or wisdom.
In a just world, Mailer should have lost remaining credibility with the Jack Abbott incident. Circa 1979 he published The Executioner’s Song — a paean to convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, which won a Pulitzer. He followed that act by arranging for the publication of the correspondence he’d had with violent career criminal Jack Abbot — on literary grounds, no less. He further advocated for Abbott’s early parole. Upon release Abbott immediately murdered a waiter over a trifle. The story encapsulates Mailer’s judgment and absurdly passionate fecklessness.
If you read the front page Sunday New York Times obit Sunday one possible conclusion is that he did suffered from a serious case of what is now called bi-polar disease — probably for decades.
Mailer was, of course, a literary icon of that funny generation — not the Greatest, not the boomers. His audience was largely his peers, and the men who came of age in the 50s. I am guilty of blaming the generation of the 60′s — Bill and Hillary, Marx and Coca-cola — for tearing down the culture. But it was the cohort ahead of them who felt the first itch, who goaded them at the barricades, and who surrendered authority without much of a fight.
And then there is the only question said to matter with a writer: Who now reads Norman Mailer? Will any of his books be in print twenty-five years from now? If you were going to teach them, what would the course be called? American Culture 1960 — 1975; Fictions, “journalism,” style and hype — is my candidate.
For a novel to speak across generations there must be serious substance and a reasonably deep understanding of human nature in evidence. That is precisely the opposite of what Norman Mailer, unbridled id, brought to the culture.