Fourteen years ago, while schlepping at a bookstore warehouse in Seattle, I decided to read all of Norman Mailer's books in chronological order. Insanity, right? How many books did Norman have at the time? How many thick books? I'd assigned myself as impossible and heavy a task as carrying a wounded Wilson down the mountain at the end of The Naked and the Dead.
I failed, of course, but not poorly. I think I made it through eight or nine books before losing my way, fittingly, in the late 1960s. Of a Fire on the Moon did me in, even though -- or perhaps because -- it blew my mind. Or maybe I just got tired of it all, the endless philosophizing about politics and architecture and literature and God, and Norman's use of the third-person first-person (Aquarius, The Reporter, The Prizewinner), or maybe what he was describing was finally completely beyond me, as if he were floating in the exosphere and I could barely make my way around the stratosphere. It was a worthy ride, though. I had a college literature professor who liked to say that some part of books seeped into you as you read them, so, for a time, you became as guilty as a Dostoevsky character or as bruised as a Salinger hero. Reading Norman, I think I dared the unknown a little more, and considered confronting my fears rather than turning away from them (before finally turning away from them), but the most unique way his books affected me was this: he was so articulate, and in such a searching and dynamic way (as opposed to a knowing and static way), that I felt, or imagined I felt, the realm of what I could articulate expanding as I read him. I felt smarter. I've never felt this from another writer.
He could be as unforgiving as an Old Testament God. Don't take painkillers. Don't take birth control. Don't touch yourself. Walk the narrow parapet 30 stories high. Confront the heavyweight champion of the world. Do you know how something's going to end? Then it's not worth doing. Even writing isn't worth doing if you know how it's going to end. Maybe that's why he had such a problem with endings.
He was a champion of daring the unknown and an enemy of stasis and repetition, which is why he almost went crazy in the 1950s and why he seemed to blossom in the 1960s, churning out non-fiction book after non-fiction book. Where's shit happening? The anti-war movement? The Democratic Convention? The Ali-Frazier fight? That's where he wanted to be. When shit stopped happening he returned to novels.
He seemed to predict the 1960s from the 1950s. In Advertisements for Myself he wrote:
"America will face a crisis before the USSR... an inner crisis of the social and the psychological which will show itself in some warped mirroring of the movement of millions of people toward greater sexuality... the curious sensual qualities of the green plant marijuana which will become for the sixties what the saloon was for the twenties..."
He was a helluva prognosticator. He's never gotten credit for that. He predicted Nixon's 1972 China adventure in the same 1950s book:
"We live in a climate so reactionary that the normal guides to understanding contemporary American politics are reversed like the controls of a plane which bursts through the sound barrier; and to the liberal's dismay and confusion it is the Republicans who can make peace in Korea... [and] who may even come to recognize Communist China with the possibility that presents of splitting China from Russia."
Some say he belittled other writers but he was merely blunt in his assessment, positive or negative. Of Truman Capote he wrote "He is the most perfect writer of my generation," and he was right about that. He was also right when he predicted the nature of Truman's downfall:
"I would suspect [Truman] hesitates between the attractions of Society which enjoys and so repays him for his unique gifts, and the novel he could write of the gossip column's real life, a major work, but it would banish him forever from his favorite world."
His interview with Charlie Rose two months prior to the Iraq War is fascinating not only because Norman got almost everything right but because Charlie Rose, in the spirit of the times, got almost everything truculently wrong:
Such prognostications should be a good novelist's métier. What are predictions but figuring out what human nature is, sans the bullshit, which is the novelist's job in the first place. What has been, shall be. So in The Presidential Papers, Norman writes of the U.S. during the Cold War, "We deaden the life of millions by hypocrisy and go on to claim we are the hope of civilization," and he writes, "Anybody who wants a quick solution to a permanent problem is a lowgrade totalitarian," and he writes, "A successful politician is [one who] diverts us temporarily from dread, from anxiety, from the mirror of the dream," and all of these thoughts are more true today. Predicting Iraq must've been child's play.
He was the opposite of the "Whatever" generation. He wasn't just engaged; he tried to ascribe meaning to everything: from the smell of our shit to the structure of our cells to the nature of our fucks. Maybe this is what finally weighed me down enough to stop reading him: The unbearable heaviness of every act having meaning; of having, as he would say, psychic consequences. He and Kundera should've gotten into this. Maybe they did.
His failures were immense. What's astonishing about his first great success, The Naked and the Dead, isn't that Norman is able to get us into the heads of so many different characters; it's that all of these characters, no matter how narrow-minded or inarticulate they may seem, are, in their thoughts, genuinely profound. The novel is bleak, and full of pointless death, but in this existential thread it's hopeful. Even the most racist of us, the most certain of us, wonder what it's all about.
His subsequent novels -- Barbary Shore, The Deer Park, An American Dream -- were too much about ideas rather than characters. From his non-fiction you already knew about these ideas and it wasn't much fun watching him manipulate his characters to fit them. He did it with real characters, too. In The Fight, George Foreman tells the press before The Rumble in the Jungle, "It's hard to concentrate and be polite when you're asked questions you've heard before," to which Norman writes: "[Foreman] subscribed to the principle that repetition kills the soul." Well, maybe. Norman speaks similarly for Foreman's trainer, Dick Sadler, whose mere expression said, according to Norman, "Repetition is security for idiots." Again: maybe. Norman's characters, real or imagined, kept slipping into the well-worn grooves of Norman's philosophy.
Which is probably what finally did me in. Norman became like the spouse whose stories and jokes I'd heard too many times. I kept thinking, "Oh, not this again, Norman, please." But I still read and enjoyed The Executioner's Song and Tough Guys Don't Dance and The Gospel According to the Son and 500 pages of Harlot's Ghost and my only regret is that I didn't finish Harlot's Ghost even though its "To be continued" ending was mocked by reviewers everywhere. But Norman's always had a problem with endings.
I met him once. He was with a PR person signing books in the offices adjacent to the bookstore warehouse where I worked, and on the way to the elevator I caught him, and stumbled over myself telling him how much he meant to me, and shook his hand. I was ready for a question, a quiz, a fight, anything, but he was no longer the enfant terrible I'd been reading but an elfin figure in his 70s. He smiled and thanked me graciously.
The host of this Post was right when she said most publications got him wrong in their obituaries. This wouldn't have surprised him much. "Now we may leave Time in order to find out what happened," he wrote in The Armies of the Night. "Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever," he wrote in The Presidential Papers.
The title of her post was "Heaven Just Got a Lot More Interesting." The corollary is sad. He roared. Who's roaring now? He planted himself in the middle of his generation and tried to figure it all out. All of it. She wrote, "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."
Now he knows. If there's anything to know, now he knows.