When Norman Mailer was serially publishing his novel An American Dream in Esquire in 1964, a friend of mine said that he wished Norman would die. My friend was a jingoistic, sex-crazed novelist who revered Faulkner, wrote a hot bodice-ripper and then nothing else that anybody would publish, and was dead from drink eight years later. Norman lived four more decades as a nonpareil force field in America’s literature, intellectual life, and popular culture; and his power to seriously oppress writers like my shameless friend was crystallized by Seymour Krim in a 1969 essay—“Norman Mailer, Get Out of My Head!”
Norman in 1969 was everywhere—in all the media, all the art forms, winning the big prizes, living out Krim’s dream of literary activism, and gobbling up, with his “imperialistic personality,” territory Krim wanted for himself. “I don’t want to walk around the city constantly being Mailerized,” he wrote.
Even Krim’s sister, who didn’t read Mailer, came to visit full of questions: Was Norman as intense in person as on TV? And her husband, who stood for all that Mailer did not, raved about Norman’s brilliance. Then came the unkindest cut: “I had a good chance of getting planked one night,” Krim wrote. “The girl was darkeyed, salty and keen”—but then she started to rave about Barbary Shore—Norman’s second novel, which Krim hadn’t liked; and this “Mailer-infected preacherette” kept thrusting Barbary Shore at him “like the sacrament.” And Krim concluded grimly: “I lost my trick of the evening because of the stone I turned into.”
Barbary Shore had not been a great moment for Norman either. The Naked and the Dead showered him with literary success, money, and fame, which he loved and came to depend upon, and the critical ambush of Barbary Shore was an attack on his nervous system. “My status dropped immediately,” he wrote. “I went through tiring years of subtle social defeats because I did not know that I was no longer as large to others as I had been. I was always overmatching myself. To put it crudely, I would think I was dropping people when they were dropping me.”
This kind of physical and psychic confessionalism became part of the ongoing text of the true-life novel that Norman would write—and live—for the next forty years. His life was an open book, opened and written by himself—ego-driven, psychoanalytical, truculent, self-flagellating, coruscating, sometimes fictional, routinely brilliant. He discoursed on all the political, literary, gender, sexual and racial fevers, the poisons and idiocies of our social fabric, its underbelly and its black holes. He was the ubiquitous radical moralist, historian, and public scourge, his readers were legion, as were his enemies, and he was a singular mind, the literary phenomenon of his generation. He also directed, wrote, and acted in films, wrote plays, became a raucous partygoer, a combative TV presence, ran the PEN club, ran the Actors Studio, ran for Mayor of New York.
“I had some instinctive sense—right or wrong,” he told Playboy in 1967, “that the best way to grow was not to write one novel after another but to move from activity to activity, a notion that began with the Renaissance man; it’s not my idea, after all.”
Part of this was his discovery of journalism when he became discouraged by the difficulty of writing his second and third novels in the early 1960s. Journalism was easier. But—and “this was the horror of it,” he said of his discovery—audiences liked it better than fiction. They wanted real events. But Norman also saw that they wanted interpretation of the events, and he was ready. “We perceive the truth of a novel by way of the personality of the writer,” he wrote. “We tend to know, in our unconscious at least, whether the author is to be trusted, and where he is more ignorant than ourselves. That is the flavor of fiction. We observe the observer. Maybe that is why there is less dead air in fiction, and usually more light.”
But now Norman was also applying this conclusion to his journalism, and what he found was that “the personality of the narrator was probably as important as the event. Not that the narrator would be important in his own person.” But the narrator did reveal his prejudices to the reader, and the reader gained a point of view that was absent in so much journalism.
Norman’s coverage of such events as the Democratic convention of 1960, and the march on Washington in 1967, gave new dimension to political reporting, and he became the high priest of a newly elevated and fervent American journalism. This wasn’t necessarily a blessing for him, as he noted in Armies of the Night in a conversation with poet Robert Lowell—when they were both going to speak at a party in Washington.
“I suppose you’re going to speak, Norman,” Lowell said.
“Well, I will,” Norman said.
“Yes, you’re awfully good at that.”
“I’m no good at all at public speaking,” Lowell said.
They lapsed into silence, though Norman kept thinking about Lowell. Then Lowell spoke up: “You know, Norman, Elizabeth [Bishop] and I really think you’re the finest journalist in America.”
Norman didn’t react publicly but privately he was seething. Then Lowell said it again.
“Yes, Norman, I really think you are the best journalist in America.”
“Well, Cal,” said Norman, “there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America.”
“Oh, Norman, oh, certainly. I didn’t mean to imply, heavens no, it’s just I have such respect for good journalism.”
“Well, I don’t know that I do,” Norman said. “It’s much harder to write… a good poem.”
“Yes,” said Lowell. “Of course.”
But in spite of his reservations Norman kept writing journalistic books—on the astronauts, sex, Marilyn Monroe, boxing, Henry Miller, and then The Executioner’s Song, a work of vast reporting, but Norman called it a novel.
In remembering his apprenticeship as a writer Norman placed Studs Lonigan and Captain Blood among his shaping forces. He graduated into Dos Passos and Hemingway, escalated to Proust, Joyce, Tolstoy, and Melville, the masters who fired his ambition to write the great novel. He was further persuaded by Thomas Mann’s line that only the exhaustive was truly interesting, and so Norman wrote novels exhaustively.
Ancient Evenings took eleven years and had 700 pages; Harlot’s Ghost several years and 1,300 pages. He published 45 books, a total of 16,871 pages. Executioner’s Song had a thousand; the lifetime collection of his work, The Time of Our Time, was 1,300 pages and binding it was troublesome; Oswald’s Tale took two years of research, 800 pages.
The Oswald book was presented as non-fiction, but you open randomly to Jack Ruby killing Oswald, and here comes Ruby’s rationale, delivered not by Norman the speculative journalist-historian, but Norman the novelist looping in and out of Jack Ruby’s head as Ruby castigates himself. “‘You Jew, you do not have the guts to be a hit man—only Italians are that good.’ So he wanted to give the Mafia a real signature, his own— three shots—wanted to show the world that a Mob-style execution was not out of reach for him, a Jew.”
As early as 1967 Norman was saying he had been working on one book all his life. “Everything I write is a card out of the same deck. You can reshuffle them.” Forty years later, May Day, 2007, Norman came to Albany and convinced me that his “one book” was a novel. He was in Albany on his fourth visit to the New York State Writers Institute—which I started in 1983—this time to read from his new novel, Castle in the Forest, about Adolf Hitler—from devilish conception through adolescence.
Russell Banks and I talked to him for an hour on video; and there he sat—the venerable atheist, knowing time was getting short, justifying his latter-day belief in God, reincarnation, and the devil, who is his narrator for the Hitler story. God and Satan, Hitler and Jesus—four more characters in Norman’s one big book.
Castle in the Forest had taken four years of research and writing, but it wasn’t enough. “If I were 50 years old,” he said, “I’d think, well maybe I should spend the next 30 years … writing a 10,000 page novel … maybe 15 novels, one every two years.” Our conversation turned, as usual, to the warring forms in his work—fiction vs. non-fiction—and he was now unequivocal: “It’s all fiction,” he said. “It’s a great swindle that civilization is pulling on itself, that there are two literary forms … Non-fiction is fiction because you never get it right.”
His argument was that written history built entirely on fact will be full of error, and only the mind of the writer can synthesize facts into a reality that might have been. In The Executioner’s Song, he said, “I wanted to prove a point, which was that fiction is a style that’s employed to approach reality.”
Norman, physically, was on the wane in Albany. He had admitted publicly he was failing. He’d been walking for years with two canes because of the punishment his arthritic knees gave him, and he’d recently had asthma and a by-pass. But when I asked how things were he said, “It’s only the extremities.” His mind was very sharp.
He read for, and talked with, a crowd of 600, and it buoyed him. We had an interlude at a private home before the reading where he drank a couple of rums with orange juice—he would have a swallow of this same combination on his death bed. A late supper followed his reading and carried on till a late hour. Norman was very talkative and in great form. As we left the restaurant someone asked if would he come back to Albany, and he said, “Oh yes, indeed,” and then, invoking one of the characters in his novel, he gave a bit of a wink and added, “God willing.”
Four months later, in September, I was at Cape Cod with my son and his family, and my wife Dana and I drove to Provincetown for a reunion with Norman and his ebullient and beautiful wife Norris. Norman got out of bed and came down with his canes to greet us, much frailer than in May. He had since suffered a collapsed lung and congestive heart failure, and the multiple assaults on his body had further crooked his back, shrunken his face, and wasted him into a 90-pound specter of the old electric Norman. He speculated he had a secret cancer the doctors couldn’t find.
But his spirit and wit were on full display, and with our wives and an old Mailer family friend, we lunched on lobster and wine, hashed over my novel in progress and the play he’d talked me into writing. The friend, Christina Pabst, a photographer, had a story that both Norman and I had forgotten. The night France gave him the Legion of Honor at the French embassy in New York, we were all at an aftergathering talking about how Houdini died from an unexpected and brutal punch to the stomach. Norman was insisting I punch him comparably. I was inquiring whether I should punch the upper or lower abdomen when Christina interrupted to say how much she liked my work, and pulled Norman away. She thought I’d damage him, or that it’d turn into a fight. Norman thought the story was hilarious. I belatedly thought I’d probably have splintered an arthritic knuckle on his case-hardened gut.
Anyway, the lunch progressed with talk about Texas Hold‘em and Brando and movies and Fidel and Cuban politics and how Norman might telescope his colossally ambitious Hitler trilogy into one sequel. He knew any sequel was beyond him, but there—to the very end—was that one big novel, driving the creative juices still in him.
The conversation had been unpredictable and funny, as usual, but after two hours Norman slapped the table with the palms of both hands and said, “Gotta go up. I’m really tired.” We agreed that, without a doubt, this had been one of the great lunches, and he pushed himself back from the table.
We shook hands.
And we said so long.
Then he picked up his two canes and went slowly upstairs to lie down.