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The Great American Novel

Did Norman Mailer live it instead?

By From the December 2013 issue

Norman Mailer: A Double Life
By J. Michael Lennon

(Simon & Schuster, 948 pages, $40)

This thick block of a book is packed with facts, literary analysis, and well-drawn portraits of the people who played roles in Norman Mailer’s life and career, all written in a carefully modulated and steady prose, with no wasted words.

J. Michael Lennon, professor emeritus of English at Wilkes University, met Norman Mailer in 1972, and since that meeting has been involved in collecting, collating, and editing various Mailer works. As Mailer’s literary executor, he is now editing Mailer’s correspondence for publication.

Because of his vested interest in Mailer’s life and reputation, Lennon might be expected to keep a thumb on the scales. But although there may be a tendency to soften some of Mailer’s more outrageous performances—stabbing his second wife, for instance, or his involvement with Jack Abbott, the murdering “philosophical psychopath”—he never pretends they didn’t happen, or that Mailer was not at fault. 

Mailer hit the literary scene in 1948, and he hit it with a bang. A well brought-up and precocious boy from a good home in Brooklyn, he entered Harvard at 16, intending to become an engineer. But after reading the important novelists and publishing a story in Story magazine, he decided to become a writer—and not only that, but to write the great American novel. 

Upon graduating, he was drafted into the Army and served in the Philippines during the last year of the war, where he gathered material. And when his novel was published in 1948, The Naked and the Dead scored a direct hit. Fine World War II novels by Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, James Jones, and others would follow. But Mailer was first. 

In those postwar days, the novel-writing business was booming. Along with the newcomers, the old lions—Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dos Passos—still regularly topped the bestseller lists. Life was literature and literature was life, and Hemingway was the role model: the unspoken code, the booze, the women—the whole package. Mailer bought it all, with great gusto, and set out to earn his place among the lions.

But he had trouble duplicating the success of his first. Both Barbary Shore (1951) and Deer Park (1955) received negative reviews. His next, An American Dream (1965), first serialized Dickens-fashion in Esquire, sold well. But with the exception of Joan Didion, reviewers didn’t like it.

Increasingly, the concern was that he wasn’t writing what he knew, as in The Naked and the Dead, but writing what he didn’t know, increasingly stirring into his plots eccentric theories involving the supernatural, mythological, conspiratorial, and ideological. 

To some, it seemed he had reached the limits of his talents, lacking carefully observed factual frameworks for his novels, such as the war had given him. If so, the “new journalism,” pioneered by Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, in which fictional techniques were used to report factual situations, solved the problems of structure and plot. Mailer, as both observer and third-person narrator, could use his considerable talent to play riffs on the general theme. 

Much of what is considered his best work takes this form. The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (but never historical novel) would win both a Pulitzer and National Book Award for its dramatization of the 1967 demonstrations and march on the Pentagon, which in the feverish confusions of the ’60s allowed him to vent outrageously while sounding perfectly normal.

There was also Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), in which he watched Republicans conspiring at their perfectly choreographed Miami convention. In Chicago, while Hubert Humphrey wept as tear gas wafted into his suite from Grant Park, Mailer celebrated with the Yippees, SDSers, and Weather People as they goaded the Chicago police into counter-attacking and taking the blame for the riots. In 1972, it was St. George and The Godfather, not politically astute (he believed it would inspire an upset win for McGovern), but again, despite the Herblockian caricature of Richard Nixon, well and imaginatively written. 

As a political activist, Mailer joined the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, but resigned in 1963 when he found that one of his fellow members was Lee Harvey Oswald. (He would later spend half a year in Minsk and Moscow writing a massive book about Oswald’s motivations for the assassination. He found nothing new.) He went to jail during the Pentagon demonstrations, and in 1968, he signed an anti-Vietnam pledge to withhold taxes. Nevertheless, he resented being called a liberal, referring to himself as a “leftist conservative.” Nor did he like it when he was called “a great journalist.” He preferred “great writer.” 

In 1979, The Executioner’s Song, his widely acclaimed “non-fiction novel” based on the last months of Gary Gilmore, who at his own insistence was executed by a firing squad in Utah, won him another Pulitzer. But that wasn’t enough. He still dreamed of writing that great American novel, without qualification. And Harlot’s Ghost was to be it.

As I write this, I’m looking at a note from Mailer, thanking me for my “thoughtful review” of Harlot’s Ghost that ran in the April 1992 issue of TAS. That novel—all 1,334 pages of it—may have represented his last roll of the literary dice. Mailer threw everything he knew or thought he knew into it, with a fictional history of the CIA serving as a defining metaphor for our national life. The narrator, Harry Hubbard, a CIA operative, learns his mentor, Hugh Trevor Montague (codename Harlot), has died, with half his head blown off by a shotgun blast. (Hemingway parallels are frequent.)

Hubbard holes up to write an account of what led to Harlot’s murder, then travels to Moscow, where he reads his 2,000-page microfilmed document, and we read along with him, traveling from 1955 to 1963, from Berlin to Uruguay to Florida, through masses of letters, transcripts, memos, diaries, and bugged conversations. Along the way we catch glimpses of Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana, Allen Dulles, Judith Exner—and best of all, A.J. Ayres, explaining logical positivism to Ethel Kennedy.

Many of the techniques here, pioneered by John Dos Passos, were highly effective. But by the time he finished the book, the world had lurched violently several times, and much of the detritus of the 20th century was blown away. Reality overtook its fictionalized shadow, and the metaphor imploded. 

“Despite its flaws,” writes Professor Lennon of Harlot’s Ghost, “the novel is still a magnificent, if incomplete, achievement, reminiscent of an unfinished cathedral. It ends with the words: ‘To be continued,’ a promise never fulfilled.”

In 1983 there was a huge unreadable novel of ancient Egypt, Ancient Evenings, and in 2007 The Castle in the Forest, focusing on the childhood of Adolf Hitler. It sold well, but to some it evoked visions of Zero Mostel. At any rate, although he worked up to the last, that great American novel would not be written—although, in Ancient Evenings, Mailer did express a strong interest in reincarnation.

In an RIP for Mailer, his debating opponent and friend Bill Buckley (who would die four months later) wrote that Mailer “created the most beautiful metaphors in the language.” And Bob Tyrrell wrote of Mailer’s talent and a friendship that developed after Mailer’s appearance at a TAS editorial dinner to defend his ideas.

And the brilliant columnist Suzanne Fields, who plays a role in the opening pages of The Armies of the Night, put it his way:“Mailer was a demonic force, a man who was tough when it was tough to be tough, after the idea of manhood had been hijacked, softened, neutered and finally feminized. He believed it important that a man ‘earn manhood.’ He took the idea over the top, stabbing the second of his six wives and springing from prison a romanticized killer who then killed another man. But in his best work he challenged both convention and himself.”

In the end, he never quite wrote that great American novel. But as Professor Lennon’s splendid biography demonstrates, he may have lived it.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).