Norman Mailer died over the week-end.
I can’t say I was a full-on fan of his work, but I had read (and mostly enjoyed) about 10 of his books.
Mailer’s misfortune as a novelist was that his first book (The Naked and the Dead) was by far his most successful, artistically and commercially. He was barely 24 when he wrote it, and like every other first novel before and since, it draws heavily upon his own experience.
It’s a really effortless read, beautifully written and cunningly devised – it starts as a straightforward piece of war realism, gets experimental but in an approachable way, and then imperceptively turns philosophical. Just when you feel comfortable with the characters, the story, and the setting there’s a stunning plot shock – one of the best ever.
American Literature went through an amazing golden age in the early to mid 20th century and Norman Mailer, even if he’d never written anything else, would have been included among the last of the true greats. That’s a hell of an achievement, as the quality is so high between about 1925 and 1960 that the second rate includes Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker and John Steinbeck, and even the genre crap is by Jim Thompson, Horace McCoy and Raymond Chandler).
Of course Mailer wrote something else after the Naked and Dead; he wrote far too much and far too often. I suppose I’ve attempted about a quarter of his total output of which Why are We in Vietnam, and Ancient Evenings were unreadable and Tough Guys Don’t Dance was rubbish.
Better by far was Harlot’s Ghost – an interesting historical novel about the founding and evolution of the CIA, as told by a gifted young agent who goes on to achieve executive rank.
And then there’s the journalism.
He hated being praised for it, but Norman Mailer was one of the greatest non-fiction writers ever. Give him virtually any topic, from a civil rights march (Armies of the Night) to a boxing match (The Fight), to an Apollo moon shot (Of a Fire on the Moon) and you’d be carried along by an effortless stream of words whilst being entertained, provoked, and finally confronted with thoughts and ideas that had never occurred to you before. Yes Mailer really was that good.
If you’ve never read anything by him, please try The Naked and the Dead. If you enjoy that, move on to The Fight.
My own favourite is Of a Fire on the Moon – it’s the only book I’ve ever read on the Apollo missions that combines art and philosophy with an accurate description of events and the engineering (Mailer majored in aeronautical engineering at Harvard in 1943). Nobody but me gives a shit about Apollo now, but it’s great to have one good account of what was involved and what it all might mean. A final irony: Norman Mailer had a huge ego, and made friends and enemies easily. Amongst his most implacable enemies was Gore Vidal (of whom I'm a huge fan). Yet the two men’s careers are almost identical – a great start, followed by huge output of patchy fiction interspersed with brilliant essays and journalism. They even wrote for the same side – the deeply unfashionable and despised progressive left.
Labels: Book review