It may be unfair to judge any author on the basis of a single decade’s worth of work, but it seems especially unfair in the case of Norman Mailer.
Mailer (1923–2007) displayed some of his least attractive traits, and completed some of his least credible work, in the ten years from 1960 to 1969. For Mailer, the Sixties began with a stabbing: In an early-morning hour in November 1960, the author brought a disorderly, drink-filled party to a close with the close-to-fatal wounding of his second wife, Adele. The attack, J. Michael Lennon recounts in his authoritative biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, came on the heels of Adele’s continued put-downs of her husband. “Adele was going nuts at the party, from my point of view,” Mailer reflected. “And, finally, in a rage I took out my penknife and stuck it into her with the idea of, ‘Here, you think you’re tough, I’m tougher.’”
Lennon reports that Adele suffered lacerations in her back and upper abdomen. “By great luck,” the biographer writes, Mailer “missed his wife’s heart by a fraction of an inch.” We are faced with the grim realization that Mailer, who was capable of great precision in his prose, avoided taking his wife’s life by sheer accident. What’s worse, perhaps, is Mailer’s slipperiness in accounting for an episode that he conceded was a near-disaster but that he seemed eager to explain in existential terms. Adele, in her memoir, The Last Party: Scenes from My Life with Norman Mailer, recalled Mailer’s feeble-minded excuse for the stabbing: “I love you,” he told her, “and I had to save you from cancer.”
Indeed, Mailer seemed to relish referring to the incident — the way a toddler picks at a scab. On a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, Mailer understandably objected to Gore Vidal’s choice to link him with Charles Manson in an essay in the New York Review of Books. Strangely, Mailer’s defense strategy was to shine a spotlight on the elephant in the room, accusing Vidal of making oblique references to the episode with Adele. “We all know that I stabbed my wife years ago,” Mailer said, shifting in his seat. “We do know that, Gore. You were playing on that. You don’t want to forget about it.” But who was bringing it up? Similarly, in the summer of 2007, mere months before his death, Mailer participated in a conversation with Günter Grass at the New York Public Library, during which he seemed to blame the stabbing for depriving him of the Nobel Prize in Literature — a curious leap to make. “Swedes are very intelligent people and they’re very proud of their prize,” he said, “and they’re damned if they want to give the prize to a guy who is a wife-stabber.” Mailer added that he could not blame them — but his tone did not reveal whether he regarded this aspect of his biography as really legitimate grounds for denying him the honor.
Mailer did perhaps have a right to protest: An artist’s deplorable conduct in his private life ought not to preclude an appreciation of his professional work. There is much to set aside in Mailer’s case: Even if we chalk up his attack on Adele to a solitary moment of madness, what are we to make of his five other marriages, four of which ended in divorce? Or his lamentable advocacy on behalf of murderer-writer Jack Henry Abbott? Or his buffoonish manner, evidenced in countless anecdotes? At the same time, though, who can fail to be awed by such novels as The Naked and the Dead (1948), The Executioner’s Song (1979), and even Harlot’s Ghost (1991)?
Unfortunately, the Library of America’s new two-volume set — Norman Mailer: The Sixties, edited by Mailer biographer Lennon — makes abundantly clear that the Age of Aquarius was not an artistic high point for the author. During these years, Mailer managed to produce just two novels, both collected in the first volume in the set, Four Books of the 1960s. His novel An American Dream (1965) is the salacious, sinister saga of a mad, murderous congressman named Stephen Rojack, slapped together between covers after its serialized appearance in Esquire. Troublingly, the novel functions as yet another exorcism of Mailer’s troubles with Adele, especially in the opening passages — in which Rojack brutally, yet with maximum philosophizing, kills his wife. “Murder, after all, has exhilaration within it,” Mailer writes. “The exhilaration comes I suppose from possessing such strength. Besides, murder offers the promise of vast relief. It is never unsexual.” Mailer’s other novel of the Sixties, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), reads today as a reed-thin, thoroughly dated exposé of masculinity, distinguished mainly by Mailer’s writing, in parts of the novel, in the voice of a teenage Texan.
These novels suffered from rotten timing. In the years between 1964 and 1968, Mailer’s contemporaries were flying high — Saul Bellow published Herzog; Truman Capote, In Cold Blood; William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner; and John Updike, Couples. Such works put into proper context the sleazy, dashed-off ramblings of An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?
Maybe Mailer was too engrossed in other matters to be a full-time novelist. In the aftermath of the Adele stabbing, he certainly did not disappear from public view — far from it. In 1968, he launched an unlikely directorial career with the films Beyond the Law and Wild 90; the following year, he entered the race for mayor of New York City. (The Mailer–Jimmy Breslin ticket went down in defeat, but the author’s filmmaking chops developed sufficiently that he later helmed a surprisingly successful adaptation of his 1984 novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance; its artful mix of control and chaos suggested the later films of Stanley Kubrick.)
More charitable readers might point out that Mailer set aside novel-writing in the Sixties to devote himself to ambitious, book-length works of nonfiction, including the one-two punch of The Armies of the Night (1968), about the 1967 March on the Pentagon, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1969), detailing the Republican and Democratic parties’ 1968 conventions. Both books — presented here in the same volume as An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? — made an instant impression with their harmonizing of political nonfiction with memoir. Yet, on rereading, they are stunningly self-centered: Mailer’s repetitive allusions to himself are likely to baffle contemporary readers to whom the author is not a pop-culture fixture. Consider a line such as this, from The Armies of the Night: “Mailer had been going on for years about the diseases of America, its oncoming totalitarianism, its oppressiveness, its smog — he had written so much about the disease he had grown bored with his own voice, weary of his own petulance.” We know the feeling.
The set’s second volume, Collected Essays of the 1960s, demonstrates that Mailer was easier to take in small, concentrated doses. When not asked to carry the weight of a whole book, his reflections and observations, however nutty or specious, can have real interest and charm.
Consider, for example, excerpts culled from installments of Mailer’s column in Esquire, “The Big Bite.” In one endearingly eccentric selection, Mailer berates John F. Kennedy for purportedly tossing half-eaten pieces of chicken into the water while dining at sea. “So few people understand what I mean it forces me to explain that you don’t give the carcass of an animal to the water,” Mailer writes. “It was meant to seep back into the earth.” In another, Mailer criticizes what is, for him, a perennial target: modern building materials. “We divorced ourselves from the materials of the earth, the rock, the wood, the iron ore; we looked to new materials which were cooked in vats, long complex derivatives of urine which we called plastic.” Later, he offers his oddball views on schoolhouse design: “Let it look like what it should be, mysterious, even gladiatorial, rather than look like a reception center for war brides.”
Included, too, is Mailer’s famous piece on Kennedy, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” (1960), but an even more exquisite picture of the allure of Camelot emerges in “An Evening with Jackie Kennedy, or, The Wild West of the East” (1962), in which he ponders the allure of the first lady (on whom he would later turn). “There was a charm this other short Summer of 1960 in the thought a young man with a young attractive wife might soon become President,” he writes. “It offered possibilities and vistas; it brought a touch of life to the monotonies of politics, those monotonies so profoundly entrenched into the hinges and mortar of the Eisenhower administration.” (“Hinges and mortar” — should Mailer have been an architect?)
Yet Mailer was no predictable liberal. The volume includes an invigorating pan of Lyndon Johnson’s “abominable, damnable” book My Hope for America (1964), in which review Mailer blasts the president’s way with words (“High-school students will be writing essays on these paragraphs. One’s stomach turns over”) while expressing seemingly sincere regret for what were, in his view, the inadequacies of Barry Goldwater (“It was a loss, and it was conceivably a horror, for 1964 was also a year in which a real conservative still had a great deal to say to the nation”). Mailer expresses similar thoughts in “An Open Letter to Richard Nixon” (1968), in which the author holds his nose long enough to bemoan the spendthrift spirit of the Democratic party: “Its approach to every social, moral, and spiritual ill of man is to inject money; so it has the psychology of the pusher: in trouble? — take a fix!”
In one piece, Mailer belittles the short story, excusing his shortcomings in crafting it by assuring the reader that the form — unlike that of the novel — is beneath him. “He does not have the gift to write great short stories, or perhaps even very good ones,” Mailer writes, in the third person. “In fact, he will confess he does not have the interest, the respect, or the proper awe.”
Alas, on the author’s own terms, Mailer in the Sixties was not Mailer at his best. His essays aside, the frantic, frenzied spirit of the long-form works gathered here, as well as their nearly nonstop narcissism, suggests a writer whose well has run dry. Happily, Mailer was far from finished; by the end of the Seventies, An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? long forgotten, he came up with the muted, brittle brilliance of The Executioner’s Song. This set helpfully illustrates how far the author still had to travel.