How Overrated Is Norman Mailer?

Written by Daniel Freed on . Posted in Books, Posts.

"Politicians, ugly
buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough," Noah
Cross (John Huston) said in Chinatown. Norman Mailer’s writing hasn’t
lasted quite long enough to attain complete respectability–or to become
classic, by which I mean (borrowing from what I believe was Mark Twain’s
definition) that which is often praised but seldom read.

My guess is that most people
under the age of 40 who have heard of Mailer at all have not read a word he
has written but have some vague feeling that they should. People over 40 may
dimly remember enjoying some of Mailer’s writing years ago, before he came
to be seen as something of a buffoon, though a relatively quaint one. He can
currently be seen in magazine ads for, pondering the question
of whether "cloning will delight the devil and offend God, or offend the
devil and delight God." Is Mailer poking fun at himself? No. No more than
usual. Are clever advertising people poking fun at him? No. Though irony is
more or less reflexive with advertising people, I’d hate to give them credit
for such subtlety. This is certainly a caricature of Mailer’s thought,
but then isn’t his thought already a caricature of thinking? Seal
is in the same advertising campaign, thinking his own deep thoughts, though
his attitude appears to be somewhat self-mocking. Perhaps the message is, in
effect: for deep thinkers like Norman Mailer, and amateur
thinkers like Seal–
or perhaps we have lost all ability to distinguish
between serious thinkers and casual ones.

Even if this is true, it
is not enough to account for Mailer’s respectability, nor can we attribute
it entirely to the passing of time. Mailer was judged as an important thinker
by his contemporaries, revered intellectuals among them, who praised a substantial
amount of his work at the time of its publication. One must accuse them of poor
judgment, not poor memory. So we might take a certain degree of comfort from
the undue attention that was, and to some extent continues to be, given to Mailer:
maybe we have always had trouble distinguishing between serious thinkers
and casual ones.

Why was Mailer taken seriously
in the first place? It is a fascinating question, one of the chief reasons Mary
Dearborn’s biography is more interesting than most of Mailer’s writing.
Dearborn does not, unfortunately, ask this question herself, though she gives
us plenty of information with which to speculate.

Here is my hypothesis: Mailer
owes the success that he has had to luck, a considerable genius for self-promotion
and some talent as a writer, though when one takes into account the vast quantity
of writing he has produced (and he seems to have published all of it,
much of it more than once), it is difficult not to think about rooms filled
with monkeys and typewriters.

The Naked and the Dead
made Mailer rich and famous at 25. It is a book any 25-year-old could be proud
to have written–amateurish but coherent, with passages of considerable
power and clarity. Still, any number of intelligent, literary-minded young men
who had seen a war firsthand could have done as well. It is unlikely that many
people would have tolerated Mailer or his writing had it not been for that novel’s
success, but then there would probably have been far less to tolerate or publish.
The narcissism that, more than anything else, came to define Mailer was there
before The Naked and the Dead, but it was undoubtedly stoked by success.
Dearborn provides ample evidence that Mailer was little more than a callow young
man putting on airs after he wrote Naked, though she herself only occasionally
seems aware of it. Someone tells him who Sartre is, and suddenly Mailer is an
existentialist; he reads a phrase from Marx, and now he’s a communist.
Though his second novel was rejected by his publisher, he was able to take it
elsewhere, and to continue to be seen as a serious novelist for years afterward
in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This would have been inconceivable
had he not written The Naked and the Dead.

So the first bit of luck
was being in World War Two, which gave him something important to write about.
His next bit of luck was that, when Mailer was in his 30s, the avant-garde was
poised to burst into the national spotlight. Mailer was a member of the avant-garde
because of Naked, and he exploited a cultural climate in which the shocking
was easily confused with the profound.

How else to explain the
praise given to the laughable short story "The Time of Her Time,"
which the esteemed literary critic Alfred Kazin, in his essay "How Good
is Norman Mailer?," offered up as evidence of Mailer at his best. Allow
me to summarize the plot:

A guy named Sergius O’Shaugnessy
who says that he runs a bullfighting school (he calls it an escuela de torear,
though this is incorrect Spanish) moves into a loft in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood.
First he has the whole place painted white, then he builds a wall and paints
it red. Over a period of several months, he brings lots of women back there
to fuck. Then he brings a smug, cold, 19-year-old Jewish NYU student there.
They fuck on a couple of different occasions, and then O’Shaugnessy fucks
her in the ass with what he repeatedly refers to as his "avenger."
As she’s leaving, she tells O’Shaugnessy that her analyst "told
me your whole life is a lie, and you do nothing but run away from the homosexual
that is you." O’Shaugnessy then narrates, "like a real killer,
she did not look back, and was out the door before I could rise to tell her
that she was a hero fit for me."

It is difficult to imagine
what merit Kazin could have seen in this story. I can only surmise that he was
titillated by the anal sex. But nearly 40 years later, Mailer and the editors
of Random House were apparently proud enough of it to borrow its title, changing
"her" to "our," for their enormous anthology of Mailer’s
work, published last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Naked
and the Dead.

But maybe this story is
too easy a target. Armies of the Night is generally regarded as Mailer’s
most important work. I cannot challenge Louis Menand’s assertion, made
last year in the New York Review of Books, that "as a mordant portrait
of the culture of the anti-war movement there is nothing to beat it," because
I haven’t read any other mordant portraits of the culture of the antiwar
movement. It is clever in places, but, like nearly all of Mailer’s writing,
its relentless focus upon Mailer, Mailer, Mailer, and the lumbering pretentiousness
of its prose make it a trial to read. Menand argues that Mailer’s insertion
of himself into Armies as a figure called "Mailer" is precisely
what makes it great, in large part because Mailer was (apparently) the first
journalist to do this. I am not won over by the "he was the first"
argument for the importance of an artist. "Who was first?" is not
nearly so interesting a question as "Who was best? Who endures?"

When Mailer is criticized,
it is usually for his ideas, and if he is charged more often with misogyny and
racism these days than with philosophizing without a clue, as he was in the
past, it scarcely seems to matter. What astonishes me is how difficult it is
to find anyone, past or present, who will say anything negative about Mailer’s
prose style, most of which is unreadable for its pretentiousness. Either he
is trying to sound like a detached man of letters, as in Armies–"The
arbiter of nicety in him had observed with horror over many a similar occasion
that he was absolutely without character for any social situation in which a
pause could become the mood’s abyss, and so he always filled the moment
with the most extravagant amalgams of possibility"–or he makes you
want to stuff a beret down his throat, as in this letter he sent to Partisan

Unless Vietnam is the happening.
Could that be? Could that really be? Little old Vietnam just a happening? Cause
if it is, Daddy Warbucks, couldn’t we have that happening just with the
Marines and skip all that indiscriminate roast tit and naked lunch, all those
bombed-out civilian ovaries, Mr. J., Mr. L. B. J., Boss Man of Show Biz–I
salute you in your White House Oval: I mean Americans will shoot all over the
shithouse wall if this jazz goes on, Jim.

There are exceptions: bits
of journalism, and one book–The Executioner’s Song–but
entire forests have been laid to waste in the service of this man’s efforts
to make small points look like big ones by using 10 words instead of two.

That said, I am not at all
sorry to have read Dearborn’s biography. Mailer is an immensely interesting
personality who has had a fascinating life. He has crossed paths with an astonishing
variety of people, and since he was such a provocateur the snapshots of various
actors in history are often quite entertaining. We get glimpses of Mailer’s
hot and cold friendships with figures like James Baldwin, William Styron and
Norman Podhoretz. We hear Lionel Trilling speculating that Mailer stabbed his
wife in some kind of Dostoevskian experiment, and Diana Trilling utterly charmed
after Mailer calls her "smart cunt."

In a description of Norris
Church, Mailer’s sixth and current wife, we find out that she "had
dated almost every available single man between Russellville and Little Rock…including
aspiring lawyer Bill Clinton." The book gives us at least one amusing anecdote
about Miles Davis, Jimmy Breslin, Marlon Brando, Henry Miller, Gore Vidal, Jack
Kerouac, Dick Cavett, Roy Cohn, Gloria Steinem, George Plimpton, Don King, Arthur
Miller, Rip Torn, JFK and Jackie O.–all the cocktail parties Mailer ever
attended in the comfort of your own home! We also learn something about boxing,
politics, drug dealing and, above all, the management of a writing career–something
at which Mailer is an indisputable pro.

The most serious problem
with Dearborn’s biography is that it lacks a clearly articulated stance
on the significance of its subject. She seems to take it for granted that a
biography of Mailer should be written. Of course she’s right. Mailer is
important. But why? Because of his writing or his public persona? Dearborn does
not seem to want to argue, as I would, that Mailer is more interesting as a
social phenomenon than as a writer. On the other hand, she never makes a serious
case for the importance of his writing.

This refusal to take a stand
could conceivably be a stand in itself, if a bloodless one: an attempt to objectively
tell the story of the life, reserving critical judgment. But she doesn’t
reserve critical judgment; she tosses it in haphazardly, as if she were making
a soup instead of a biography. What’s more, the critical appraisals we
get often seem perfunctory. What does it mean to say that Mailer’s book
about Marilyn Monroe, is "a text to be reckoned with…that replays
favorite themes, like the duality of the soul, and rehearses new ones: the notions
of karma and reincarnation"?

This is the only critical
evaluation Dearborn gives us of Marilyn, but is it an evaluation? Does
"to be reckoned with" mean that it has merits? If so, what are they?
Surely not merely that it "replays favorite themes…and rehearses new

Airless and perplexing opinions
of this kind drift throughout the biography. Often, I had the impression that
Dearborn was not really offering an opinion so much as attempting to provide
a transition to the next topic. She makes astute points as well, but they are
often thrown away as asides, rather than developed and used to frame the narrative.
Still, if you are curious about Mailer’s life, and as I have said, there
is no shame in that, a better biography is unlikely to come along. A genuinely
discerning biographer, in the unlikely event that she even considered the project,
would look at the mountains of unreadable drivel that Mailer has produced and
conclude that her time would be better spent on something else.