The news of Norman Mailer’s passing, which arrived as I was preparing to check out of a Las Vegas hotel late last week, caused me, during the flight home, to reflect upon my literary coming of age. I think most avid readers can pinpoint the moment when they really fell in love with reading, can name the book that lit the fire, the writer whose talent illuminated for them the infinite possibilities of language. Mailer was one of those writers for me.
My current literary tastes were shaped in large part by the books I read in high school and college, and Mailer (along with his contemporary, Kurt Vonnegut, who also died this year, and Thomas Wolfe) played a pivotal role in my development as a reader. While my classmates were admiring Hemingway's economical prose (we had just read The Sun Also Rises in English class), I fell in love with the headlong rush of words, the rhythm and heat of language, the well-wrought (and sometimes over-wrought) turn of phrase.
I don’t remember how old I was when my father handed me a copy of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s debut work, a World War II novel written when the author was barely out of Harvard. My father, a high school dropout who read prodigiously, was forever handing me books he’d enjoyed, having already nurtured in me at an early age an appreciation of Kerouac. Thus started what became, for me, a fascination of sorts with Mailer, this larger than life literary maverick, uniquely American and certainly a product of his times. Did I think I was cool walking through the corridors of my high school with a copy of “The White Negro” tucked in among my notebooks? You bet I did.
The 1960s – my formative years – exploded in a seemingly endless series of domestic conflagrations. As the country was enmeshed in a stunningly unpopular and divisive war, torn apart by assassinations, and in the throes of a great generational conflict, the personal became political (and vice versa) at nearly every turn, and the line between art and politics grew ever fuzzier. In the midst of all of this, Mailer became a fixture of the counter-culture he had helped birth – he was one of the founders of The Village Voice and no stranger to radical politics – and became one of the more colorful and compelling literary figures of our time. If we had previously thought of writers as shy, reclusive, retiring … well, Mailer was here to disabuse us of that silly notion. The pugnacious Mailer became one of the first celebrity authors, but managed to keep his literary street cred in the process.
Husband to six and father of nine, Mailer’s tumultuous personal life was fueled by bouts of heavy drug and alcohol use. He earned notoriety (and the scorn of feminists) by stabbing his second wife with a penknife while at a party. He scrapped frequently (literally and figuratively) and publicly with his peers, most notably with Gore Vidal. He ran for Mayor of the city of New York and dabbled in filmmaking. He made countless television appearances.
His books dealt with the cultural and political touchstones of the era — the war in Viet Nam, the violence and unrest surrounding the political conventions of 1968, the lunar landing, Marilyn Monroe, Jesus Christ, Lee Harvey Oswald, and most recently, Hitler — and have painted a bold canvas of the past several decades. His metaphysical examinations of his subject matter might give you pause for thought, cause for disagreement, might even irk you, but I never tired of watching and reading, and I was certainly never bored. If Truman Capote invented the non-fiction novel with In Cold Blood, one might argue that Mailer brought it to the peak of perfection with The Executioner's Song. Based on exhaustive research, the 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner tells the tale of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, executed by the state of Utah in 1977. Lyrical and compelling, and as immense in scope as the blue western sky under which its events transpire, it is Mailer's best work.
Lying next to my bedside at the moment, half-finished, is The Castle in the Forest, his last novel, published earlier this year. A fictional account of the childhood of Adolf Hitler, the tale is narrated by the devil, and like much of Mailer's work, deals with the issues of good, evil, and choice. His body of work has earned him a place among the major literary figures of the 20th century. If the times in which he lived lent themselves to excessive self-examination – and few eras of modern history have been chewed over as thoroughly – it's hard to imagine examining them from a more compelling point of view than Mailer's.