Near the start of his career Norman Mailer declared that he planned to write the great American novel, "hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters.'' It was a typically American goal, stated in baseball language, but it severely damaged him.
Having set an impossible standard, he spent a lifetime fruitlessly trying to meet it, and when he died on Saturday, at age 84, "the big one" (as he sometimes called it) was still beyond his grasp.
His first and most successful novel, The Naked and the Dead, established in 1948 that he could write a best-seller about war with a serious undercurrent of politics and psychology. His next two novels, one about Trotskyism ( Barbary Shore) and one about Hollywood in the McCarthy era ( The Deer Park) were audacious books that deserved better reviews than they received. Then his career stalled.
He revived it in 1959 with Advertisements for Myself, a compelling grab-bag of writing that ranged from elaborate self-justifications to acid comments on his contemporaries, notably Saul Bellow ("I cannot take him seriously") and J.D. Salinger ("the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school"). That book started Mailer's career as a journalist. In the 1960s he wrote first-class accounts of the anti-war movement, the political parties and the moon landing.
An eccentric view of sex turned up often in his work. He opposed contraception because it made sex mechanical and trivial, withdrawing the mystery. And when the women's movement turned the clitoral orgasm into a political issue, Mailer drew back in horror. It didn't fit his personal theology. In a 1971 book, The Prisoner of Sex, he claimed the vaginal orgasm was the one way a man and woman could achieve "a transcendent instant." By then Mailer saw himself as a cultural hero, pushing everyone's thinking toward life's "existential edge."
He loved the word "existential" and sprinkled it over his prose like sugar on oatmeal. "Dread" was another favourite. After he heard the theory that frustrated anger might lead to cancer he began to toy with this idea as an excuse for violence. One night in November, 1960, heavily drunk after a party, he stabbed his second wife, seriously injuring her. That event, magnified by stories about sudden punches and head-buttings at parties, gave him an odd kind of macho reputation.
In 1977 a killer named Jack Henry Abbott began writing to Mailer from the Utah prison where he was serving a long sentence. Mailer thought him talented, helped publish his letters as In the Belly of the Beast then helped him get parole. Abbott was on the street for only a few weeks when he stabbed a New York waiter to death for a trifling insult. He made Mailer look like a fool.
Mailer strained to establish himself as the central figure in American letters but instead became the king of an emerging new genre, the Alimony Book, the project typically connecting a famous writer with an idea dreamt up by a desperate book editor and an anxious-to-please agent. Mailer was pathetically susceptible: Five divorces and nine children left him constantly in need of cash.
In 1973 he worked on Marilyn, a collection of pictures with a text that Mailer had the nerve to call a "novel biography," imitating Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel." Here as elsewhere, his ego infected his writing. As the late Pauline Kael wrote in a brilliant review, "He pumps so much wind into his subject that the reader may suspect that he's trying to make Marilyn Monroe worthy of him."
A turning point, Marilyn was followed by a succession of books that were either money-spinners or cries for attention from a writer living in fear of obsolescence. He churned out Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, Oswald's Tale (about John Kennedy's killer), an imaginary autobiography of Jesus Christ and, most recently, The Castle in the Forest, a novel about Hitler. Still, in the midst of all this, The Executioner's Song (1979) showed that on occasion Mailer could still deploy the urgent and expansive prose style that first attracted everyone's attention. He recast this account of Gary Gilmore, a convicted killer who asked to be swiftly executed rather than imprisoned for life, into one of his most stylish performances. Mailer called Ancient Evenings (1983), a 709-page historical novel, his best book. Few could disagree since few could bear to make their way through it.
It was impossible not to admire Mailer's grand ambition to star in the centre ring of the American circus. In the end, though, almost everyone grew sick of his performance. The most patient reviewers complained about empty, unrewarding novels. The most sycophantic journalists saw nothing left to praise.
But Mailer had taught publishers an unfortunate lesson: A bad book carrying a celebrity's name did not necessarily mean bad sales. Bookstores today are crammed with what the trade once called "non-books," concoctions grounded entirely in commercial desire, lacking a writer's need to be heard. In a sense the downfall of his talent became the saddest element in his legacy to American writing. Did the publishing business ruin Mailer, or did Mailer ruin the publishing business? The answer doesn't much matter.
Each did everything possible to corrupt the other.