In the annals of American literature, has there ever been a major writer more easily distracted than Norman Mailer? The author of such classic books as “The Naked and the Dead” and “The Executioner’s Song” had a penchant for tangents that took him, over the course of his 84 years, far afield of his chosen profession. “Mailer loved to drop everything, mobilize his energies, and launch in a new direction,” writes J. Michael Lennon in Norman Mailer: A Double Life, the first biography of the author to appear since his death in 2007.
For example, take a passage which considers Mailer, circa 1965. The decade had already been chockablock with incident, with its share of highlights (such as Mailer's writing his classic novel “An American Dream” for Harper’s magazine) and lowlights (most scandalously an early-morning fight with his second wife, Adele, in which she was stabbed). But when Lennon sets the stage for what the next 10 or so years have in store for him – “he would write sixteen books, create three experimental films, produce an off-Broadway play, and in 1969, before appearing on the cover of Life, would run for (and lose) the Democratic nomination for the mayor of New York City” – we are almost as exhausted as we suppose Mailer might have been.
The raw material that made up Mailer’s busy, teeming life might have given lesser biographers fits (or even suggested that a multi-volume approach was in order), but Lennon is able to keep pace – and so are we. Most fascinating are the accounts of the creation of various Mailer masterworks: We are with him as he starts to make sense of the plethora of interviews which informed “The Executioner’s Song” and as he treks to Russia to learn more about Lee Harvey Oswald for “Oswald’s Tale.” Lennon has a sure feel for evoking Mailer’s one-of-a-kind literary style, as when he describes the panoply of incident packed into his famous boxing essay “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” which, like so many Mailer creations, was “a revamping of the genre,” going far beyond simply detailing the fight: “Mailer opens his focus to include portraits of the fight crowd, the celebrities, the dignitaries, the hangers-on, and the reporters who covered the fight.”
But Lennon resists the urge to focus exclusively on Mailer’s writing (and the practical and financial details that surround it); he does not sidestep the author’s more starry-eyed pursuits. In fact, the section detailing his run for mayor is among the book’s most unexpected because of the thoughtful, evenhanded presentation Lennon gives it. Who would have guessed that Mailer’s seemingly outlandish proposal to turn New York City into a 51st state would be echoed, decades later, by Rudy Guiliani?
To be sure, some of Mailer’s fantastical daydreams lacked credibility even to those closest to him. On the eve of the 1996 presidential campaign, frustrated at not having the ear of President Bill Clinton, Lennon reports that he seriously considered challenging the incumbent for the highest office in the land. Mayor Mailer is one thing, but President Mailer? Cooler heads – namely, his sixth and final wife, Norris – prevailed: “When Norris got wind of this quixotic venture, she replied … that she would leave him if he dared to declare.” It is shocking that someone often described as brawny and brusque would, at times, appear so guileless, but that is how Mailer comes across in this instance and – far more damningly – in his role in the sad case of Jack Henry Abbott, a con with some writing ability who was freed from prison thanks to Mailer’s assistance. But just as Abbott's book, "In the Belly of the Beast" (to which Mailer wrote the introduction), was about to come out, Abbott killed a man in an alley. In hindsight, Mailer’s initial hopes for Abbott seem like the stuff of black comedy. “He and Abbott discussed the possibility of getting him a residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire,” Lennon writes. “Norris later summed it up, ‘Boy, were we naïve.’”
To his credit, Lennon also does not pass over Mailer’s hauteur, which extends – naturally – to his opinion of his own work. In a letter to friends, he describes “The Executioner’s Song” as being “as long as The Brothers Karamazov and one-quarter as good,” which might seem self-deprecating until you realize that even a fourth of Dostoyevsky is still quite good. (Later, Mailer raises the stakes, calling “Harlot’s Ghost” “two-thirds as long as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ and half as good.”) Yet, for all of Mailer’s conceit, the portrait painted by Lennon (who knew him for 35 years) is in many ways quite sympathetic. Near the end of his life, suffering from health problems and decreased stamina, Mailer completed a final, widely acclaimed novel, “The Castle in the Forest” – but not at the expense of his other pastimes. “With the novel put to bed,” Lennon writes, “Mailer immersed himself in poker…. He believed that Texas hold ’em was so popular because it enabled players to exercise buried paranoiac and anti-paranoiac tendencies.”
This enthralling book captures something of Mailer’s insatiable, ever-surprising interest in the world in which he lived.
Peter Tonguette has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.