“When in doubt about my motivation,” Norman Mailer told his handpicked biographer, “cherchez la femme.” Women were certainly a key factor behind his prolific output. He had to pay alimony and child support to five ex-wives (his sixth and final spouse, the stunningly attractive Norris Church, bore him his ninth offspring). And there were the mistresses, scattered hither and yon; they required care and feeding too.
But in Norman Mailer: A Double Life, J. Michael Lennon depicts an extraordinarily complex personality who thrived on turbulence. Subdued domesticity would have cut him off from a vital source of creative energy. The literary executor of Mailer’s estate, Lennon had unfettered access to his subject’s private papers. This gave him an advantage over other biographers, but he still faced a daunting challenge. Who could write better about Mailer than the man himself? In several books, such as Advertisements for Myself, The Armies of the Night and The Prisoner of Sex, he opened his life to his readers, utterly unembarrassed by the character flaws they would find.
Lennon doesn’t ignore Mailer’s dark side, but overall his tone is admiring. He tries to separate the celebrity from the artist, to assert the breadth of Mailer’s talent. One only wishes he had practiced self-restraint. At almost 1,000 pages, this is a barbell of a book, a monumentally unwieldy narrative that can be exhausting in its comprehensiveness.
Mailer was groomed for the pantheon in the crib. His mother would whisper in his ear, “Please God, make him a great man.” Her Norman could do no wrong in her eyes. Once, she stepped over a woman he assaulted to comfort him. What wife or girlfriend could compete with that?
But before he was a boor and a bully, Mailer was a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who made good by going to Harvard. After a stint in the Pacific Theater, he settled down to write a war novel. In 1948, at age 25, he published The Naked and the Dead, a lavishly praised epic that spent a year on the bestseller list. The success went to his head. He hobnobbed with Hollywood stars, serially cheated on his first wife. More importantly, he grew fascinated with drugs and violence. In effect, he broke bad.
The 1950s were not a happy decade for him. Work did not go well. His second novel flopped, his third was rejected by several publishers. His second wife, Adele Morales, was a tough, uninhibited Latina. When they weren’t fighting, they were frolicking in bed. But it was doomed. The night Adele gave birth to their first child, Mailer left the hospital to sleep with his ex-sister-in-law.
Things came to a terrifying head one morning in November 1960, when Mailer stabbed Adele in the chest. The wound was serious; in a meticulously detailed account of the incident, Lennon reveals how close she came to dying. Fortunately for Mailer, she didn’t press charges. Needless to say, divorce papers were filed soon thereafter.
Despite this psychotic breakdown, Mailer flourished. In the 1960s, he solidified his iconic status. By the end of the decade, he was one of most famous writers in America, a Pulitzer Prize winner who commanded exorbitant advances. As a human being, however, he was difficult, at times downright insufferable. He could be quite charming, but as he admitted, “I have a demon inside me.”
A bad drunk, he picked fights in a ridiculous Texan accent. He made a fool of himself in public, sometimes on TV. One does not know whether to pity or laugh at his misogyny, obsession with anal sex and love of violence. “A little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul,” he declared, one of several such stupid statements. When Jack Henry Abbott, a paroled murderer, stabbed a Cuban waiter, Mailer, who had been so impressed with Abbott’s writing ability that he helped set him free, suggested that “culture is worth a little risk.”
Like Poe and Dreiser, Mailer was a great bad writer. You have to take a sieve to his prose, sifting through a lot of turgidity to isolate the gold. One can apply the same approach to his life, but there the shiny objects may not be enough to distract you from the rest.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.