Norman Mailer: A Double Life, by J Michael Lennon, Simon & Schuster, RRP£30/$40, 960 pages
Obviously, Norman Mailer should be reviewing the authorised biography of Norman Mailer. Were he not six years in the grave, he would certainly accept the assignment. And based on the evidence in J Michael Lennon’s impressive effort to recount Mailer’s multitudinous and combustible life story, here’s how that scenario would likely play out: asked for 1,500 words, Mailer submits 150,000. Upon learning that this newspaper is unwilling to devote its entire Saturday edition to his writing about himself, he is shocked and outraged and demands (successfully) that his agent secure a six-figure book deal so his work could be published in its rightful fullness. He uses most of that money to pay down his latest overdue tax bill; the rest goes in alimony instalments for his ex-wives.
He then flies from New York to London with a documentary film crew in tow. Cameras rolling, he pushes his way into the editorial offices, roaring for an explanation as to why his piece was rejected. The meeting leads to some combination of the following: a fist-fight, a drunken reconciliation, a drunken fist-fight, a one-night stand, a press conference. Then Mailer returns to the US to work on the documentary of his trip to London, and on the manuscript of his 150,000-word autobiographical impressions of his authorised biography. When these matters and a few dozen others are dealt with, he at last returns to the latest million-word novel he’s writing. This one concerns a barrel-chested, curly-haired Paleolithic warrior-fertility god’s endless battles against the legions of cowards and prudes arrayed against him.
That may seem like a fanciful scenario, but it’s nevertheless in keeping with Mailer’s entire career as nothing less than himself: writer, lover, fighter, family man, man of letters, man of action. He pursued all of this from the earliest possible age. Born in Brooklyn in 1923 to Jewish immigrants, at 11 he wrote a 35,000-word novel. At 16, he entered Harvard intent upon achieving the greatest possible outcomes in the fields of literature and sex. He then enlisted, primarily so he could experience firsthand the events and soldiers of the second world war that would enable him to write “THE war novel”, as he declared to his first wife, detailing in advance his plan, ambition and expectation (these were always synonyms for Mailer). And he did it: The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948, when Mailer was 25 years old, was hailed as one of the greatest novels about the war. It was also an immediate bestseller, the first of many that Mailer would enjoy in every one of seven decades from the 1940s to the 2000s, alongside near-constant public attention, which was, constantly enough, public notoriety.
In telling this life story, Lennon competes with Mailer to assess Mailer, a dynamic in keeping with Mailer’s sense of self and approach to all else. As his one-time friend, the writer and intellectual Norman Podhoretz, observes: Mailer “must always work everything out for himself and by himself, as though it were up to him to create the world anew over and over again in his own experience.” Lennon quotes Podhoretz approvingly and then more than proves Podhoretz right by closely and thoughtfully attending to Mailer’s steroidal self-reliance, which, turned outward, took the form of some 44 books of fiction and non-fiction, thousands of magazine pieces for publications such as Esquire and Playboy, and also some 45,000 letters, in addition to screenplays and assorted public speeches. On multiple occasions, motivated by financial need and literary fecundity and intellectual jingoism and political imperatives, Mailer would publish several books in the same year, and the quality of the work did not suffer much from this prodigiousness: in 1969, he received double nominations for the National Book Award, for The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and he did the same three years later, with Of a Fire on the Moon and The Prisoner of Sex.
He was similarly productive in personal terms: married six times, he fathered nine children, and along the way pursued innumerable affairs, some of them passing assignations, others spanning decades. Unsurprisingly, his personal life was frequently turbulent. And because he saw little distinction between his personal life and his public life, this turbulence often made news, most dramatically in 1960, when a drunk and high Mailer stabbed his second wife Adele with a penknife in the middle of a house party where he had planned to announce he was running for mayor of New York City (on the “existentialist ticket”). As he does with Mailer’s many well-publicised feuds with fellow writers, which also involved violence on occasion – Mailer famously headbutted his nemesis Gore Vidal at a swish cocktail party while Jackie Kennedy watched – Lennon recreates the terrible domestic scene in extensive detail, drawing on multiple viewpoints, including that of Adele and also Mailer, who only years later was finally fully contrite.
Perhaps the most telling take comes from Mailer’s friend, the actor and screenwriter Mickey Knox, who recalls that the morning after the stabbing, once Mailer had ambivalently visited his stitched-up wife in the hospital and was then facing arrest, jail-time or commitment to a psychiatric institution, he really had just one pressing concern: “Mailer asked him to go into the 94th Street apartment and retrieve the open letter to Castro he had been working on.” Knox was only momentarily taken aback, as he explains to Lennon: “ ‘Christ, I thought, he stabbed his wife the night before and what was uppermost in his mind? Getting the letter published. It did not surprise me. The foundation of Norman’s being is the sum of his writing.’ ”
This foundation was ordered to and by Mailer’s sense of the writer as a sacred figure of mystical capacities and grave responsibilities for an otherwise godless, dulled and plastic age: among the many subjects Mailer pursued, as a writer and whenever possible as an intimate witness and boisterous participant, were the ways of presidents from John F Kennedy to George W Bush, national politics, sexual politics, boxing, celebrity, murder, war and espionage, and that’s only in American terms. He also went after the stories of outsized historical figures, from Egyptian pharaohs and Jesus to Pablo Picasso and Adolf Hitler, and whether implicitly or explicitly, measured their ambitions and accomplishments against his own. Lennon does not defend this implacable, voracious egotism so much as establish its meaningful centrality to Mailer’s vocation.
The subtitle “A Double Life” serves as Lennon’s governing premise for exploring how Mailer’s personal life mattered to his writing life and vice versa, but he does far more than merely affirm this abundantly obvious, abundantly volatile relationship. He makes strong cases throughout the biography for the inherent strengths of Mailer’s writing, particularly his achievements in reconceptualising the possibilities of journalism. For instance, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket”, Mailer’s 1960 Esquire article about JFK’s campaign for president, fundamentally altered the terms of political writing: it brilliantly broke down artificial boundaries between the inner lives and outward actions of politicians and voters alike by exploring in vivid and numinous-toned prose the private-cum-collective psychological drama and ecstatic desires that Kennedy catalysed and embodied. Mailer did likewise for sports writing in 1974, when he went to Kinshasa to report on Muhammad Ali’s famed “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight bout against George Foreman and then published The Fight. He did it again, this time for celebrity biography, with his speculative take on Marilyn Monroe’s desires and demons.
To great effect, he erased the boundaries between true crime, the non-fiction novel and literary fiction with The Executioner’s Song (1979), his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the life and death of a Utah murderer that many regard as his supreme work. As for Mailer himself, set from youth on producing works that would “out-Joyce James”, as he once put it, he was always intent on writing the Great American Novel, if usually distracted from this quest by much else. The Naked and the Dead often comes up as his closest approximation, but Lennon makes a strong case for Harlot’s Ghost (1991), about the CIA’s deep and far-reaching presence in modern American life. Maddening many critics and readers, this 1,300 page novel ends “TO BE CONTINUED” but Lennon argues persuasively that the book “could be likened to a magnificent, half-finished cathedral”, and that there was in fact aesthetic and intellectual purpose to this anti-conclusion, in keeping with Mailer’s incomparable, indefatigable ambitions and with his similarly capacious ideas about America.
Lennon is well-positioned to offer such judgments: following decades of collaboration on various projects, Mailer invited Lennon to write his biography after the subject outlasted his first authorised biographer, Robert Lucid. Instead of merely continuing Lucid’s work, Lennon began anew and very much made it his own. At times, he’s too willing to give his pages over to Mailer admirers (Mailer included) to embroider testimonials to his greatness. But in the main Lennon has done a very fine job of chronicling most every possible dimension of a sprawling, brawling, daredevil-cum-car wreck of a singularly great American writer’s life – and I can say that without fear of a 150,000-word letter to the editor disputing everything I’ve just written, save that Norman Mailer was great.
Randy Boyagoda’s novel ‘Beggar’s Feast’ will be published in the UK by Penguin in January