Norman Mailer—Jewish pugilist, a writer equally at home with fiction and fact, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a lover and a hater of women and one of three founders of the Village Voice—died today. He was married repeatedly, and although he did stab his second wife, four more yet followed.
Mailer was for many decades the most argumentative novelist of our time. In 1998, Mailer trashed Tom Wolfe's "A Man In Full." Mailer said that reading the book was like "making love to a 300-pound woman. Once she gets on top, it's over." (Wolfe, trying and failing to be as stylishly scrappy, called Mailer and John Updike "two piles of bones." Idiot.)
When New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani said his memoir "The Spooky Art" was like "going on a very long bus rider over a very bumpy road, sitting next to a garrulous raconteur who never takes a nap and never pauses for breath," he retaliated by calling her a "kamikaze" and a "twofer" in the Times quest for equal opportunity.
He once sat on Truman Capote (and also praised him, though not without dismissal: "He is tart as a grand aunt," Mailer wrote of Capote, "but in his way he is a ballsy little guy"); he invited William Styron to fisticuffs; he did punch Gore Vidal and accused Vidal, quite accurately, of unmanning Jack Kerouac. (It was not Vidal's fault that both Kerouac's work and masculinity were of such flimsy construction.)
In the 60s, he was both a short-lived mayoral candidate and a proponent of the idea that New York City should secede to become a 51st State. Neither idea caught fire and New York City has since been overrun by America.
Over the years, Mailer came to odd theological beliefs. In 2003, he told Ron Rosenbaum that: "I just feel we live in a triangular relation with God and the Devil, that we're a separate force. It's not that we're little puppets pushed around by an anode pole and a cathode pole. We push back on each of them. So it makes for a very complex universe, a complex moral universe, because you never know at a given moment whether you're doing it as a human or whether you're being tricked by one or the other of two opposed deities."
He regularly scrapped about women and feminism, and in a way that, in the end, made it seem that he was afraid of them. He said that "Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain," but also, speaking at the 92nd Street Y in 1998, he told this story:
"I once was at a party with my then-wife, it was at Frank Conroy's house in Brooklyn Heights. We were sitting around, at a given moment there were eight or 10 or 12 people there. Lillian [Hellman] had the most annoying habit of calling me Normie. She said, 'Normie, why didn't you ever fuck me?' This is in front of all those people. So I took a deep breath and I said, 'Well, Lillian, I guess I didn't because I was afraid I wouldn't be the best you'd ever had.' And she smiled very benignly and said, 'It's all right then.'"
But something like awareness about his insecurities about manhood came to him in recent years. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2003, he said that he saw the Iraq War as an inappropriate response to the idea of modern emasculation:
And there were other factors for using our military skills, minor but significant: these reasons return us to the ongoing malaise of the white American male. He had been taking a daily drubbing over the last thirty years. For better or worse, the women's movement has had its breakthrough successes and the old, easy white male ego has withered in the glare.
The resistance of the left in America broke the will of the establishment to wage a serious war. One by one, influential members of the military-industrial complex and the higher enclaves of finance came to decide that the war would wreck America morally, economically, and finally technologically. They did not decide this because secretly they admired the militancy or ideology or principles of the left. They detested all that. But about the time students began to destroy valuable equipment and burn university buildings—even a minority of students in a minority of universities—the perspective was clear. Those students were America's future technological experts. (I obviously include the soft technologies of communications, sociology, et al., which center around social planning.) So members of the establishment came to recognize each by himself—will a novelist ever capture their long dark night?—that America could never run its industrial and media complex if even a fraction of its brightest people were determined at sabotage.
And so in recent years, Mailer both stopped drinking while writing and set aside much of his battling—despite minor incidents with the likes of Wolfe—in the service of politics, because what he had written about Vietnam and its protests was not going to be true for this war. More and more, he and his former enemies, particularly Vidal, found common ground in their believe that the United States was beginning to exhibit nearly all the hallmarks of fascism in its operations both internationally and at home. Less fun than literary dust-ups, to be sure, and yet.