He may not have been accorded the status he craves, but over the past half a century Norman Mailer has proved himself a true literary giant. His writings are a blistering chronicle of the adventures and agonies of post-war America, writes Adam Lively.
For 50 years, since The Naked and the Dead shot him to fame at the age of 25, Norman Mailer has rampaged across the American landscape, sometimes tossing aside his opponents, sometimes himself getting battered. Armed with his ego, his talent and his notebook, he has pursued a crusade: to prove himself the Great American Novelist.
His prose is never effortless, like Updike's; it bristles with willpower.If you are not impressed, you are beaten into submission.
His ambition shouldn't be laughed at, and if - for reasons I shall come to - he has not succeeded in becoming the Great American Novelist, he has, along the way, proved himself a great American writer. This 1,200-page slab of an anthology, organised chronologically to form a Mailerian post-war history of the US, demonstrates that, for all his faults, he is the writer whom future historians will most often turn to for a flavour of America in this turbulent half-century.
He was old enough to fight in the Pacific war (and turn the experience into that sensational first novel), and he was young enough to throw himself into the radical rumpus of the Sixties - writing, partying, making films, fighting, throwing his own hat into the political ring. That decade dominates the book, from the 1960 presidential campaigns - the subject of his first major book of reportage - through the anti-Vietnam War protests that he memorably describes, and takes part in, in The Armies of the Night,to Armstrong's stepping out on the Moon.
The books that came out of those events - The Presidential Papers, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, St George and the Godfather, Of a Fire on the Moon - are classics of what would come to be canonised as the New Journalism.
Mailer was indeed the first and greatest gonzo of gonzo reportage, with more punch and more psychological depth than Hunter S Thompson or Tom Wolfe. At times the verbal bravado is sublime - as in the extract included here, in which a drunken Mailer, alongside a weary, elevated Robert Lowell, harangues a Boston audience - and the passionate heroics, the sheer exercise of will, salted with enough self-recognition to deliver a brilliantly dark metaphysical humour. As Mailer says of sex, he is only interested in it if it comes with guilt and sin attached. One thinks, too, of the absorbing and weirdly sympathetic portrait of Nixon in 1968 - another man embarked on an adventure to reinvent himself.
Mailer's true subject is so often himself. This is no heroicism, for the power of his reportage lies in the engagement one has with this gargantuan sensibility, this experiential black hole that can swallow the vastness and contradictions of America and make them its own.
For a reporter, subjectivity on that scale can be a source of power, but for a novelist it carries an enormous danger. Denied the prop of reality, the novelist must make his work stand by itself, must withdraw himself until, perhaps, he is just a pair of Nabokovian magician's hands pulling strings. Mailer is not that kind of writer, and when he pulls himself out of the picture there is nothing left. This anthology, placing chunks of his fiction (in particular, the interminable Harlot's Ghost) alongside the non-fiction, brings home the superiority of the latter.
Inevitably in a book of this length, and with a writer like Mailer, who would rather smash through porcelain than compare his prose to it, there are times when the thunderous rhetoric drowns out the message and the words. But, even so, this book is essential reading for anyone with the slightest interest in Americana. He is his nation's pre-eminent chronicler.Here he is in November 1996: "For a majority of TV-watching Americans, it was likely that Clinton was by now the most fascinating character to come along since JR. That large share of America's viewers would not wish the Clintons to go off the air. For this is a TV entertainment with the potential to rise above all the video heights of the past, and even the Simpson case could pale before the future adventures of Bill and Hillary."
Let us pray that an editor has signed Mailer to write up the Lewinsky story. We shouldn't have to pray too hard.
MAILER ON NIXON.
From 'The New Yorker' (May 20, 1974) "I'm beginning to think he is doomed.The stubbornest man in America, and doomed. With all his congealed and unadmitted boldness, with all his transcendent hypocrisy (the gas of his false pieties enters the very spirit of anti-matter), still he has always been, in the final crisis, the fool of small-town caution. So, in the grand boiling of the pots of American opinion, our National Yardbird goes into the broth without his features, and all salts withheld. We will be a great nation on the day we come to see that his ability to poach in his own juice is the American disease of us all."
MAILER ON KENNEDY. From 'The Presidential Papers' (1963)
"He was like an actor who has been cast as the candidate. A good actor, but not a great one - you were aware all the time that the role was one thing and the man another - they did not coincide, the actor seemed a touch too aloof (as, let us say, Gregory Peck is usually too aloof) to become the part. Yet one had little sense of whether to value this elusiveness or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself."