Reconsidering Norman Mailer

Article by Jeremy

With J. Michael Lennon’s exhaustive new biography, NORMAN MAILER: A DOUBLE LIFE, scheduled to be released October 15th, it seems like the right time to revisit the work and legacy of this polarizing literary icon.

Mailer casts a long shadow over post-WWII American literature. Indeed, beginning with the seminal war classic, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, in 1948, his career spanned the entire second half of the twentieth century. However, Mailer’s prodigious talent as a writer is often overshadowed in turn by his outrageous---and very public---behavior. Since he came to prominence at almost the exact moment televisions started to appear in homes across America, everything Mailer said and did reached millions. Each of his arrests for political dissent, every incendiary sexist comment he made, every physical altercation he got into (headbutting Gore Vidal or brawling with Rip Torn are personal favorites) was broadcast across the nation, not to mention recorded for posterity.

Norman Mailer: A Double Life Cover Image
ISBN: 9781439150191
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Simon & Schuster - October 15th, 2013

All of this and much more is recounted in A DOUBLE LIFE. And even though he was a close friend, Lennon doesn’t give Mailer a free pass on his shortcomings. But where this biography really shines is in its detailed chronicle of Mailer’s writing and publishing battles. This kind of behind-the-scenes access to the creative process of a genius and the tension Mailer’s public persona brought to his art make A DOUBLE LIFE an absorbing read. So, was Mailer a nice guy? Absolutely not. He is the quintessential example of having to separate the man from the art. But no matter what you think of Norman Mailer, his ability, ingenuity and influence as a writer are undeniable. Here are a few of his best.

The Naked and the Dead: 50th Anniversary Edition, with a New Introduction by the Author Cover Image
ISBN: 9780312265052
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Picador USA - August 5th, 2000

One of the greatest war novels of all time and still his top selling book, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD propelled a twenty-five year old Mailer to instant celebrity when it debuted at number one on The New York Times bestseller list. Set in the Philippines and based on Mailer’s own wartime experiences, The Naked and the Dead skillfully renders the effects of war on the soldier’s psyche and exposes the arrogance and incompetence of commanding officers. No one comes out looking good in this novel, let alone heroic. It’s unvarnished portrayal of combat life was unparalleled upon its release, simultaneously garnering critical praise and condemnation. But if it wasn’t controversial, it would be Mailer! Any way you look at it, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, is a classic not to be missed.

The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History Cover Image
ISBN: 9780452272798
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Plume Books - January 1st, 1995

Earning Mailer his first Pulitzer and a National Book Award, ARMIES OF THE NIGHT is a work of historical as well as literary importance (as the subtitle implies). Along with Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD, it was part of the “new journalism” vanguard that brought novelistic techniques to nonfiction writing in the mid-1960s. Chronicling the 1967 March on the Pentagon, ARMIES OF THE NIGHT is also stylistically avant garde in Mailer’s use of the third-person to describe his own experience as an observer and participant at the protest. While he often gets lambasted for the perceived arrogance of this creative choice, aesthetically it affords Mailer a point-of-view of both immediacy and detachment. The effect is startling and puts the reader right in the middle of the political turmoil that suffused the Vietnam War protests. Simply a great book!

The Executioner's Song Cover Image
By Norman Mailer, Dave Eggers (Foreword by)
ISBN: 9780446584388
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Grand Central Publishing - May 8th, 2012

This mammoth novel (1,086 pages!) further straddles the line between fact and fiction like much of Mailer’s work. THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG is an incredibly nuanced and engrossing portrait of Gary Gilmore, the habitual criminal who became the first person executed in the United States in a decade when he demanded the death penalty for two murders he committed in 1976. In Mailer’s adept hands, however, this book became a major touchstone in the debate over capital punishment in America. Don’t be put off by it’s size! THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG is a furious page-turner and an important historical record you’ll find hard to put down.

The Fight Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812986129
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Random House Trade - October 15th, 2013

Mailer’s eye witness account (again written in the third person) of “The Rumble in the Jungle”---Muhammad Ali’s historic championship bout against Houston’s own George Foreman---is a classic of sports reportage. Mailer’s celebrity and press access allowed him to capture in THE FIGHT the pensive mood permeating both boxers’ camps, the beauty and poverty of Kinshasa where the fight was held, and the frenetic media storm surrounding this highly publicized sporting event. Every subtle aspect of the spectacle comes through. You will feel like you are there. A new edition of THE FIGHT is set to come out this month!

-- Keaton

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