Mailer: His Life and Times, by Peter Manso. New York: Simon & Schuster. Illustrated. 720 pp. $19.95. This collection of freewheeling interviews with Norman Mailer and seemingly everyone connected with him will provide hours of fascinating, if not always edifying, reading for anyone interested in the aging enfant terrible and the literary world that has embraced him with such enthusiasm. But the secret of Mailer as a phenomenon may be encapsulated in two extracts dealing with his early childhood:
``He got so much attention from the family that it was like he was a little god,'' says Mr. Mailer's mother.
When he was in grade school, Mailer was given a ``C'' on his report card. According to Mailer's former brother-in-law, Norman's mother went to see the principal, insisting, `` `There's some mistake here. My son isn't capable of doing mediocre work. There's no way he could get a `C.' `What difference does it make?' they said. `It isn't going to appear on his high school transcript when he goes to college.' Her reply? `I want him to be acknowledged for what he is, a superior person. I want yo u to give him the `A' he deserves.' And she got them to change the grade.''
It is perhaps less surprising that Mailer's mother has continued to exhibit this attitude for the six decades since her son's birth than that a sizable portion of the literary establishment (from Diana Trilling to Lillian Hellman) has treated him in much the same fashion. Reading this book helps one understand more clearly the writer he is, and perhaps more tellingly and tragically, the writer he might have been if he had encountered more criticism and less adulation.