Norman Mailer, R.I.P.
Norman Mailer died Saturday. Not an entirely unexpected occurrence; the guy was 84 years old. But a tragic one nonetheless. Mailer was a singular American writer–as he himself would be the first to tell you–heir to the writer-as-tough-guy tradition of Hemingway. He penned some of the finest works of the twentieth century, including the apotheoses of both the war novel (The Naked and the Dead) and creative nonfiction (The Executioner’s Song). He jammed himself right into the middle of most American conflicts of the mid-twentieth century, everything from Vietnam to the Rumble in the Jungle. And like Hunter S. Thompson, he always reminded you that he was right there during it all, shaping it in some way himself.
It seems Mailer could never be what people wanted him to be; he’d wriggle out of expectations and frustrate the hell out of those who supported him. He was both Voice of a Generation and shrill curmudgeon, relentless Author With Big Ideas and pretentious self-promoter. But here’s the important thing about Mailer–he tried. He shot for immortality, and if he perhaps reckoned his genius a little too pervasive, well, so what? Better that than the mewling, whining neuroticism that consumed American fiction in his wake–if I ever met Raymond Carver, I’d’ve kicked his minimalist ass for the damage he did to literary fiction–and better to dream big than to continue staring at your own little world, day after day,
year after year. Mailer gets these kinds of snide swipes from pissant little writers who hide their terror at confronting big questions behind dismissive irony; check out this obituary for evidence. Tom Junod’s profile of Mailer from earlier this year wondered about this phenomenon, too, and Junod delivered a fine verdict on Mailer, even if most current writers won’t.
Just a few weeks ago, in New York, Mailer put forth the basics of his own bizarre theology and notion of the afterlife. I don’t quite get it–it seems kind of jury-rigged together–but hey, it’s Mailer, which means it’s worth at least considering. This week, I’ll dig back into The Naked and the Dead and mine The Spooky Art, his book on writing, for a few more insights. And then I’ll raise a glass to the man. Probably won’t be stabbing my wife like he did to one of his, though. That would be a bit much.