The word most of the Norman Mailer obituaries I've read seem to associate with him is "ego," but I strongly disagree.
I first met Mailer in 1980. I'd just arrived in New York from London, fleeing a relationship and mending a broken heart. We were seated next to each other at a dinner party.
And from the very first moment of meeting him, the word that struck me, and came to define him in my eyes, was "engagement." For Mailer was relentlessly, passionately, deliriously engaged with life.
If there were something in the world that was interesting, it interested Mailer. And if there were something controversial in the world, it obsessed him. Race, religion, politics, sexuality, violence, war and peace -- Mailer came at them from every angle he could. Stalking them (and eventually pummeling them) like the prizefighters he so admired.
After that first meeting in 1980, I stayed in regular touch with him and Norris Church, his beautiful and talented wife. When I was writing my biography of Picasso, I'd call him up and run my theories by him. He too had always been fascinated by Picasso, and ended up writing a book about the first third of Picasso's life.
But the thing we talked about the most was God. People who are brash and profane and radical (other words frequently attached to Mailer) are often assumed to be anti-God, but this was certainly not the case with Mailer.
He aggressively believed (aggressive belief being one of his most comfortable postures) in God, reincarnation, and an afterlife. To Mailer, belief in reincarnation was what made sense of life.
Last year, while promoting The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America, the book he co-wrote with one his nine children, John Buffalo, at a forum at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, he said "it makes more sense to me that God exists than that he doesn't."
"God is a creator," he said, "engaged in a great adventure." Of course, both of those applied to Mailer as well. For him, life really was a great adventure and he was nothing if not a creator.
As for the author-as-deity meme, there was never any shortage of critics who accused Mailer of comparing himself to God (in their defense, Mailer did write a first-person novel, The Gospel According to the Son, from the point of view of Jesus).
The last time I saw Mailer was at a dinner I had for him and his wife at my home. It was just before we launched HuffPost, and of course I asked him to blog. And of course he accepted. I say "of course" not because it would be unthinkable to turn me down, but because blogging is just a new way of using language to convey ideas -- something impossible for Mailer to resist.
He told me, however, he wouldn't be able to blog until he finished the book he was working on. But then the imbroglio over the purported flushing of a Koran hit the headlines and he couldn't resist. "I'm beginning to see why one would want to write a blog," he emailed me in what became his first post. (A page of Huffington Post blogs about, and by, Mailer can be found here.)
I wish that ill-health and multiple deadlines hadn't prevented him from blogging more because he so totally got the genre, as you can see from the first line of his last post:
"The following is just for the sake of it -- I want to feed the maw of the blog: In the wake of all the fluvial funereal obsequies that the media attached to Ronald Reagan's earthly departure, I felt obliged to remark that he had been the most overrated president in American history and the second most ignorant."
Mailer was all about possibility -- about asking why things are the way they are and showing, through his writing, there are other ways they could be. As Jay Rosen wrote:
"To read ['Superman Comes to the Supermarket'] today...is to realize that things don't have to be the way [a traditional reporter] says they are. There are other ways into the intricacies of politics. And if they are not practical for the reporter from Mudville who got the assignment to cover the convention, they can at least be inspirational."
For instance, there was his prescient description of the convention: "one has the feeling it was built by television sets giving orders to men." Our modern political system in a nutshell.
"The Democrats are like whipped dogs," he said last year at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Sadly, they still are this year. And he closed the forum by saying that what we need to do is "keep alive the critical eye and lift the level of the American language."
In an age when torture has become a "harsh interrogation technique" and "freedom" and "democracy" are used to curtail freedom and democracy, we'll surely miss his critical eye and his passionate love affair with the American language.
When he ran for mayor of New York in 1969, he said "I am paying my debt to society. That is why I am running." He didn't win, but he paid his debt just by being Norman Mailer.
Since the existence of an afterlife was one of the things we both agreed on, I'm going to assume he's now fully ensconced in it, and has already got a few feuds going -- including one with God.
If only I could get him to blog about it.