11/10/2007 01:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Norman Mailer's City


It's not a matter of liking Norman Mailer. It never was. Thousands of us, maybe millions, grew up in his umbra, swimming in his turbulent and inconsiderate wake. We were literary-minded suburban kids born in the fifties, street demonstrators, would-be hipsters one generation removed from the Jewish streets of New York.

Norman was the same age as our parents. But he was the third parent, the parent who paid us back for the nights of drinking, the nights of violence, those nights of bitter and vindictive arguments about impersonal topics like Vietnam, the Middle East, and rock & roll. He was angrier and meaner than our actual parents, but he paid us back for everything. He gave us his approval.

It's not a matter of admiration, either. What would you admire about Norman Mailer, exactly? His brilliance? His omnivorous interest in any and all subjects? His seeming fearlessness in venturing opinions, often highly eccentric, about any topic? His willingness to try almost anything, from electoral politics to film-making?

To admire those aspects of Mailer, you would have to admire their products: The brutal attacks on feminist pioneers. The unwatchable movies. (Wild 90 is a good film title, though.) His belief that "Superman in the Supermarket" helped elect John Kennedy. (But who knows? Maybe it did.)

Then there's the matter of Jewish identity. Mailer's generation of Jews, our fathers' generation, struggled with manhood and virility in the American context. But while Philip Roth wrote, Mailer acted out on the public stage. He stabbed his wife, for Christ's sake. What kind of human being does that, and why? Was it some ritual exorcism of the curly-headed boy beaten up by gangs from another neighborhood?

Mailer formed the context for my particular cohort of book readers and would-be writers. What I got from Norman, and what I'm grateful for, has less to do with the wunderkind who wrote "The Naked and the Dead" (I wasn't even born yet) and more to do with the late 1960's and early 1970's Mailer. That's the Mailer who wrote and spoke about any and every subject, the one who fearlessly strolled onto the public stage and tried to reframe the debate.

My God, imagine what might have happened to this country if Norman Mailer had been born into the Kennedy family. Of course, then he could never have been Norman Mailer. But it's a thought experiment Mailer himself probably conducted.

The 60's/70's Mailer loved to coin words. "Factoid" was the most famous, for a fact-like construct that illustrates a truth even if it's literally false. But there were others. Somewhere he wrote about a "thanatosphere" where he believed the dead hovered around the Earth like a second atmosphere. Of course, he didn't really believe it. Belief, too, can be a factoid.

Mailer designed cities in his dreams. So did I. As a small boy I would draw or paint cities of the future. My father took me to bookstores where, at age eight, I'd asked surprised clerks for something about the Bauhaus or Mies van der Rohe. In other words, I was an odd little kid writing and illustrating his little books, another curly-headed prodigy running from menacing gangs. So it caught my eye when Mailer wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine in 1968 called "Cities Higher Than Mountains," and built a sculpture (see photo above) to illustrate it.

Mailer was unafraid to enter into areas where he had no credentials. In "Cities Higher Than Mountains" he was willing to radically redesign the American urban landscape, despite his lack of architecture experience. (For scale, the small square in the lower left-hand corner of the photo is the UN Building.) Mailer proposed that we spend the next forty years recreating urban America according to his vision, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright but all his own, of suspended communities towering over greenscapes and farmlands.

Had we followed his suggestion, the radical re-engineering of America would be concluding this year. I didn't realize until his death that Mailer's undergraduate degree from Harvard was in engineering. There was a lot to learn about Norman. A search through the Times Archive for his "Cities" article this morning offered a stroboscopic view of his life:

From 1972: "Ship of . . . er . . . Philosophers: 'Let us recognize," said Norman Mailer, 'that we are performing that one act that is considered most sacrilegious by the early Jehovah -- we are trying to become gods.'"

From 1950: "A LITERARY question was asked in the House of Commons this week. The question concerned a book. The House, as you know, takes literature with proper gravity. A year or so ago it discussed, at some length, various points of view concerning Norman Mailer's 'The Naked and the Dead.'"

From 1973: "Mailer's Guests ($50 a Couple) Hear His Plan on 'Secret Police'; Not to Defend Press."

From 1965: "Norman Mailer Book Banned."

And then there's my personal favorite, a headline from 1965: "NORMAN MAILER IN TIFF; Arrested in Losing Fight for $7.60 Credit at Birdland."

I suppose I'm grateful for Norman Mailer, but then I can't conceive of a world where he had never existed. I never had to worry whether a Jew, and a writer, could also be a man. That was my father's struggle, and Norman's. It wasn't mine, or my brothers'. Instead, we wondered whether half-Jewish suburban kids could play rhythm & blues.

But did I like Norman Mailer? It's like asking if I like my own genetic signature. Did I admire Norman Mailer? I don't even understand the question. He has always been with me, and he always will be.

Like it or not.