Ten minutes after downloading Richard Bradford’s Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer, I was wondering what the hell I’d been thinking. No, that’s not it. I did know what I’d been thinking: It had been a long time since I read Mailer, or read about him, let alone wrote about him, and I figured that perhaps I should take a look at this new biography — whose author, a British professor (not to be confused with the late American novelist of the same name), has previously written lives of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Alan Sillitoe, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, and Patricia Highsmith — and use it as an opportunity to revisit Mailer’s life and work and see if I had any fresh thoughts about the son of a b***h.
But 10 minutes was enough to turn me off. Did I really want to renew my acquaintance with this privileged, pampered mama’s boy from tony Long Branch, New Jersey, who, even as a kid — and, later, as an undergraduate at Harvard — posed as a tough-talking, deprived proletarian goon from the most uncivilized part of Brooklyn? Then again, as I read Bradford’s book, I realized there was a lot I’d forgotten that was worth being reminded of. Starting early on, for example, I’d forgotten that after the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in which 492 people perished, Mailer, then 19, spent “several hours” examining the burned corpses that had been laid out so that they could be identified by their loved ones. Good God, what to make of that? (READ MORE from Bruce Bawer: Pageboy Reveals Elliot Page Is One Hot Mess)
Two years later, after marrying his first wife, Bea — a pianist, communist, and nymphomaniac — Mailer went off to serve as a GI in the Pacific theater, which he looked forward to not because he was particularly interested in fighting for his country but mainly because wanted to make his name by writing the great American war novel. Indeed, The Naked and the Dead (1948) did make him famous — even though, for this reader, the words never rose off the page — and enabled him to assume a position, which he’d retain for the rest of his life, at the very heart of the New York literary world. Mailer — who at the time was a fan of Stalin and of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party (a Kremlin front) and unwilling to listen to any sense on the subject of communism — soon replaced Bea with a new spouse, Adele, who resembled her predecessor in at least one respect: In Mailer’s journals, notes Bradford, she comes off by turns as a “sex maniac, decadent aficionado of pure filth and a woman who seems to take pleasure in being raped.” Despite being a mama’s boy, then, he was never interested in wedding a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad.
Raked over the coals for his short, surprisingly unimpressive second and third novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), Mailer, eager to establish himself as a beatnik hero, helped found — and became a regular contributor of slapdash, infantile columns to — the new weekly Village Voice. No longer big on communism, he was now busy formulating his own philosophy, which idolized meaningless displays of brutal force. In one column, he distinguished “squares” (bad) from “hipsters” (good): “To a Square, a rapist is a rapist…. But a hipster knows that the act of rape is a part of life too, and that even in the most brutal and unforgivable rape, there is artistry or the lack of it.” “The Hip and the Square” was one of many writings, in a variety of genres, that made up Mailer’s 1959 grab-bag Advertisements for Myself, a book that helped shift his image from that of a no-longer-promising serious novelist to that of an iconoclastic social and cultural commentator. Another highlight of Advertisements was the essay “The White Negro,” which, as Bradford puts it, treated “the African-American male as an animalistic sub-species of humanity”; in one notorious passage, he imagined two black teens murdering a shopkeeper and asserted that such a crime would qualify them as rookie “hipsters.” Even Beat writer Jack Kerouac, himself no intellectual heavyweight, thought that Mailer’s views on being “hip” were idiotic. Many members of the Gotham literati agreed, but they still loved attending Mailer’s parties and inviting him to theirs. Yes, he had an unpleasant tendency to start fistfights, but his buffoonery kept him in the headlines and made Manhattan’s more staid authors feel, by sheer virtue of contact with him, hip.
Then, at one of those very parties, as if to act out his theories about hipsterdom, Mailer stabbed his wife. Twice. She almost died. It happened during the first of his two ridiculous runs for mayor of New York. He showed no guilt, got off almost scot-free, and actually thought he could continue with his mayoral campaign as if nothing had happened. Soon he was on to wife number three, Jeanne, who was also notable for her “debauchery” (Bradford’s words). His fourth, Beverly, came along shortly after, as did his terrible little fourth novel, An American Dream (1965), whose protagonist doesn’t just stab his wife but kills her. The plot’s similarity to Mailer’s own recent act of near uxoricide helped sales. But it was garbage, as was his slight fifth novel, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967). By contrast, The Armies of the Night (1968), his account of an antiwar protest in which he took part, was a straightforward, well-observed narrative that received glowing reviews, won the Pulitzer and National Book Award, and is now considered a blue-chip example of the then-new New Journalism, which, unlike traditional journalism, eschewed objectivity. Yes, it was, and still is, an immensely absorbing read — but how much of the praise had to do with its literary merit and how much with its PC politics?
Increasingly in need of cash to bankroll his expensive lifestyle, support his many children, and pay alimony to an ever-burgeoning number of spouses, Mailer spent much of his middle age banging out volumes of lousy-to-middling non-fiction that were nominally about the 1968 political conventions (Miami and the Siege of Chicago, 1968), the Apollo 11 mission (Of a Fire on the Moon, 1971), feminism (The Prisoner of Sex, 1971), Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn, 1973), the glories of vandalism (The Faith of Graffiti, 1974), and a boxing match between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman (The Fight, 1975). I say “nominally” because whatever the purported subjects, the books were always, in very large part, about Mailer himself. After all these hack jobs came a curious project. Mailer’s longtime rival Truman Capote had spent years researching his magnificent true-crime work, In Cold Blood, for which he’d received plaudits of a kind Mailer had never attained; so when a mountain of material about the murderer Gary Gilmore was dumped in Mailer’s lap, he avidly, and without doing a lick of research of his own, transformed it into The Executioner’s Song (1979), which won him a second Pulitzer, in no small part because the literary elites who cheered it shared his view of Gilmore as, in Bradford’s words, an “existential anti-hero.” (READ MORE: Elton for EGOT: The Perfect End to a Stunning Career)
In 1980, Mailer divorced Beverly, underwent a two-day marriage to his fifth wife, Carol, in order to make their child legitimate, and wed his sixth wife, Norris. A year later came a scandal to rival his stabbing of Adele. It was while working on his Gilmore book that Mailer began an intense correspondence with another convicted killer, Jack Henry Abbott. Mailer not only helped Abbott find a publisher for his memoir, In the Belly of the Beast, but also helped secure his release from prison, even though a prison official who knew him a lot better than did Mailer considered him a dangerous psychotic; in 1981, two weeks after Belly came out, Abbott killed Richard Adan, a 22-year-old waiter in an East Village restaurant, for no reason whatsoever. As in the wake of his wife-stabbing, Mailer was unrepentant, saying that he was “willing to gamble with certain elements of society to save this man’s talent.” As it happens, Adan, too, had been an artist — an actor, dancer, and about-to-be-produced playwright; but for Mailer, writes Bradford, Adan “was just a waiter,” and therefore as worthless as the imaginary store owner in “The White Negro.” I would add this: Surely part of the reason why Mailer valued Adan less than he did Abbott was that Adan appears to have been a gentle soul, unlike Abbott, who embodied precisely the kind of irrational rage that Mailer identified with real manliness, creative genius, greatness of spirit, and (of course) hipsterhood.
Mailer devoted the third act of his life largely to the production of fictions, a couple of them massive, in which he tackled subjects about which he knew next to nothing. About Ancient Evenings (1982), a giant doorstop set in…