Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Obituary: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer died last week. I read his Pulitzer Prize winning book Armies of the Night about twelve years ago; it's the only book by Mailer I've read. I don't remember much about it except for a scene in which he gets in a fist fight with a neo-Nazi in a paddy wagon. Or am I making that up?

It's possible -- he liked that sort of thing. According to Charles McGrath's New York Times obituary:
"At different points in his life Mr. Mailer was a prodigious drinker and drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an antiwar protester, an opponent of women’s liberation and an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random punch-throwing. Boxing obsessed him and inspired some of his best writing. Any time he met a critic or a reviewer, even a friendly one, he would put up his fists and drop into a crouch"
Back to that part about running for mayor later. McGrath again:
"For much of the ’50s he drifted, frequently drunk or stoned or both, and affected odd accents: British, Irish, gangster, Texan. In 1955, together with two friends, Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher, he founded The Village Voice, and while writing a column for that paper he began to evolve what became his trademark style — bold, poetic, metaphysical, even shamanistic at times — and his personal philosophy of hipsterism. It was a homespun, Greenwich Village version of existentialism, which argued that the truly with-it, blacks and jazz musicians especially, led more authentic lives and enjoyed better orgasms."
I think we've forgotton how weird Norman Mailer was. But wait, there's more:
"In November 1960, Mr. Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife, seriously wounding her. The incident happened at the end of an all-night party announcing Mr. Mailer’s intention to run in the 1961 mayoral campaign, and he, like many of his guests, had been drinking heavily. Mr. Mailer was arrested, but his wife declined to press charges, and he was eventually released after being sent to Bellevue Hospital for observation. The marriage broke up two years later."
Ah, there we are, back to the mayoral race. He didn't end up running for mayor in 1961, but he campaigned with the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin (who ran for city council president) in 1969. Breslin thought he was joking. (Breslin, a guy who was beat up by mobsters, was the original Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, and was the reporter who the Son of Sam addressed letters to, is a whole other story.) Apparently Mailer wanted to make New York City the 51st state -- that was their platform. Go here for a PDF of Breslin's New York Magazine article about it.

And then there was the incident when Mailer "bit off part of an ear of the actor Rip Torn after Mr. Torn attacked him with a hammer" during the filming of the movie Maidstone, which Mailer wrote and directed.

And the convict he championed, Jack Henry Abbott, who was in the federal pen in Utah for forgery and killing another con. McGrath: "A few weeks after being released, in June 1981, Mr. Abbott, now a darling in leftist literary circles, stabbed to death a waiter in a Lower East Side restaurant, and his champion became a target of national outrage."

I found an anecdote on a website called Anecdotage.com, so its reliabilty is questionable, but if it's true, it's gold:
William F. Buckley once sent fellow author Norman Mailer a copy of his latest book. Mailer, disappointed to find that Buckley had apparently neglected to inscribe the book, promptly flipped through the index to see whether he had been mentioned. There, beside his name, Mailer found Buckley's 'inscription' -- a handwritten "Hi!"
It's no wonder Mailer's ego is mentioned in the headline of his obituary. Buckley, in his own obituary for Mailer on the conservative Townhall.com writes that Mailer was "almost unique in his search for notoriety and absolutely unrivaled in his co-existence with it."

Buckley (perhaps my favorite living conservative and a candidate for mayor of New York City in 1965) shares a couple of grand Mailer stories, like one about the "towering writer" (Buckley's a bit sarcastic here; that was McGrath's term) and his current wife getting drunk during dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Buckley. Mrs. Mailer passes out and Norman calls Buckley's wife "Slugger."

Buckley concedes that Mailer really was a great writer. "But I go further," he continues,
"wondering out loud whether the obituaries are, finally, drawing attention to the phenomenon of Norman Mailer from the appropriate perspective. The newspaper of record says of him, as though such a profile were routine, that he was married six times, that he nearly killed one wife with a penknife, and that he had nine children. What if he had had seven wives, the seventh of them abandoned there in somebody's bedroom, waiting for a taxi to take her home, any home? Would that have claimed the obituarist's attention?"
He's questioning McGrath's mentioning the sordid bits of a really good writer's life. But Mailer lived as if his own life was a spectacle in a novel. Did I mention he was married six times? And he had more kids than wives. Oh well, Buckley did. Gore Vidal, quoted in McGrath's obituary, once said:
“Mailer is forever shouting at us that he is about to tell us something we must know or has just told us something revelatory and we failed to hear him or that he will, God grant his poor abused brain and body just one more chance, get through to us so that we will know. Each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells. Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fucking loved Norman Mailer. I am heartbroken at his death. Where have all the drunken misogynists gone?

2:37 PM  

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