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The furious life of Norman Mailer

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois,” Flaubert wrote, “so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Try telling that to Norman Mailer. He fought in the war and he fought in bars. He had six wives and stabbed one of them. He drank heavily, took drugs, slept with anyone he could and stood for New York mayor. He fell out with everyone who picked up a pen. Amid the mayhem he wrote great journalism, wildly uneven novels, bad poetry and made truly abysmal films.

At his best he lived originally, challenging every constricting convention; at his worst he was simply violent. William Styron was so fond of Flaubert’s advice that he had it tacked to the wall of his study, but that did not stop him going out drinking with Mailer in the Fifties. Both novelists were as egotistical as they were thirsty and the bonhomie of the early days soured into boozy mistrust and resentment.

Mailer’s transgressive attitude towards boundaries makes him a biographer’s dream. Mailer only died in 2007 but J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life is already the fifth attempt and it is a mightily comprehensive volume. With nearly 200 pages of notes and editorial material, it comes with serious heft; it could have made a useful weapon in some of those bar brawls.

Lennon is an old friend of Mailer and a champion of his work. For that reason alone, he is not interested in being sensationalist. Neither, to his credit, is he interested in a whitewash. He remains a determined partisan of Mailer’s work but in telling his life, he seeks to nuance and contextualise.

Occasionally his generosity spills over into indulgence but, armed with a wealth of new archival material, he plays it pretty straight. After all, if Mailer is a biographer’s dream, he is a hagiographer’s nightmare. Two years after falling out with Styron, Mailer entered a spiral of drink, drugs and anger that culminated in his almost murdering Adele.

At a party he threw for a friend’s birthday, Mailer, drunk and high, went tearing around in a matador shirt, staring down the guests and trying to start fights on the street outside. As the party was reduced to the early morning dregs, Adele goaded Mailer and he responded by taking his penknife and stabbing her twice. The blade punctured her pericardium — the casing around the heart — and, according to Lennon, came within a fraction of an inch of killing her. Mailer ended up in Bellevue psychiatric hospital.

Adele saved him from a long prison term by not pressing charges and when he finally ended up in court, the judge decided to “gamble on him” by giving him a suspended sentence. He was already sleeping with someone else before Adele was fully recovered. He did not speak or write much about the incident but later he told his daughter Betsy that he had “let God down”. The chutzpah is staggering. Not that he had ever framed his self-worth in modest terms.

He was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish immigrant family and was an extremely bright student. At 16 he went to Harvard and at 22 he was planning a 20-volume novel series that would “out-Joyce James”. As a soldier in the Second World War he consciously sought action in the Pacific theatre so that he would be able to write a war novel.

When working on one draft chapter, he claimed to have composed “about 40 of the best pages ever written by an American”. With great timing and a great title, The Naked and the Dead (1948) made him a literary celebrity at 25. In the Fifties he went in search of gurus. He got his radical Left politics from the Polish Trotskyist Jean Malaquais and was turned on to Eastern mysticism by fellow war novelist James Jones.

He got into Wilhelm Reich’s psychoanalytic theory and built a large egg — an orgone box — in which he could curl up and “scream and snort and bellow and growl and even pipsqueak”. He took drugs and had life-changing visions. He wrote The Deer Park (1955) while “bombed and sapped and charged and stoned” on a cocktail of Seconal, booze, coffee, cigarettes, tranquillisers and Benzedrine. For the final manuscript revisions he threw Mescaline into the mix.

He ended up becoming a guru himself, a seer of impending social collapse, and in 1957 he wrote “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”, a founding document of Sixties counterculture. This essay has not aged well but it remains a vastly influential cultural document. You can understand why James Baldwin was suspicious of its racial politics (and why he found it “downright impenetrable”), but where it was most controversial was in its defence of violence as an act of existential affirmation.

There is an element of self-justification in this theory. Fame’s exposure had bruised Mailer’s self-regard and made him aggressive. “I started as a generous but very spoilt boy,” he said, “and I seem to have turned into a slightly punch-drunk and ugly club fighter, who can fight clean and can fight dirty but likes to fight.”

He sold this macho stuff hard but there was always a streak of bathos in it. He was beaten up by a New York gang. Why? Someone had insulted his pet poodles. He had drunken push-up competitions with Jones (and lost). When showing off his agility to a friend on something called a bongo board he fell and bloodied his nose — he begged the friend to pretend it had happened boxing. At one New York party he went after Gore Vidal. Mailer charged and butted Vidal as soon as he saw him. He apparently threw a gin and tonic over him and then bonked him on the head with the glass. According to Vidal, Mailer also threw a punch (“Then came the tiny fist!”). Not exactly Ali versus Foreman.

In The Executioner’s Song (1979), his book about the execution of Gary Gilmore, Mailer probed the intersections of individual and state violence. While researching the topic, Mailer began to correspond with another convict, Jack Abbott, and came to believe he was a talented writer.

Mailer wrote a letter to the parole board recommending Abbott’s release and, when he got out, helped him get a book deal. Mailer and his family tried to support Abbott but in the summer of 1981 Abbott stabbed a restaurant manager in the chest and went on the run. Abbott’s memoir was reviewed in the New York Times the following day. When he was eventually caught, Mailer testified in court and afterwards spoke with a pack of reporters. If Abbott were allowed back on the streets, would he not reoffend? “Culture is worth a little risk,” Mailer replied.

It was not his dubious attitudes towards violence that ultimately did for him, however. No, in Mailer’s mind it was the women. Plugged in as he was to countercultural rhythms, the rise of feminism left him looking like a relic. In Advertisements for Myself (1959) he included an essay assessing his fellow writers’ talent (or, mainly, lack thereof). By the end he writes that he has nothing to say about women writers, because “the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquille in mannequin’s whimsy or else bright and stillborn”. Sniffs? After reading this it is hard to dispute Martin Amis’s verdict on Mailer. “No one in the history of the written word,” he wrote, “is so wide open to damaging quotation.”

Why even bother with Mailer, then? Well, in the introduction to Mind of an Outlaw: Selected Essays (Random House) Jonathan Lethem makes a clear-eyed case. He knows Mailer “never met a corner he didn’t wish to paint himself into” and that Mailer is essentially “indefensible”, so he argues for qualified admiration. For Lethem, Mailer was a “self-appointed great novelist with no definitively great novels to his credit [who] found his greatness instead in his non-fiction voice.”

Some of that great non-fiction is included in this collection. These are the founding pieces of New Journalism, reports from political conventions and sports events that reached their culmination in The Armies of the Night (1968), Mailer’s ground-breaking account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon in protest against the Vietnam War. Journalism liberated him from the pressure of writing the great American novel. He wrote 12 novels, received huge advances and his work, generally, sold well. Yet whatever the merits of his fiction, reading his biography you realise that his novels were always conditioned by their anticipated reception.

It was not just that Mailer read the reviews; at times he was writing for them. Some part of Mailer knew what his desperate need for attention was doing to him, yet he kept pursuing it; Lennon’s biography is superb at teasing out this conflict. Mailer gave more than 700 interviews, gave countless speeches and was one of the first writers to appear regularly on television. He could not stop advertising himself. In 1959, Hemingway, the model of much of this posturing, sent Mailer a letter urging him not to worry about the critical reception of his work.

“All that is poison,” Hemingway wrote. “Remember only suckers worry.” Two years later, Papa blew his brains out with a shotgun. Did this send a salutary shudder down Mailer’s spine? No: instead he experienced, as he put it, “one full heart-clot of outraged vanity” when the New York Times failed to contact him for a statement.

–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2014

Norman Mailer: A Double Life

By J. Michael Lennon, Simon & Schuster, 960 pages, £26