Norman Mailer is without question one of the greatest American writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Multi Pulitzer and National Book Awards certify that claim. He was also famous because he could articulate as well in person as he could on the page and so he was popular television fare for a couple decades. He also was a co-founder of the ‘Village Voice’, dabbled in politics, and was open in criticism of everything from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War. He was adamant in his pursuit of understanding and controversial in his willingness to explore the edges of our humanity. This is demonstrated in his book topics: Vietnam Protests, the killer Gary Gilmore, Hitler, Lee Harvey Oswald, Marilyn Monroe, or Jesus himself. He also wrote the now famous essay, The White Negro. If you don’t know any of his work, may I suggest The Executioner’s Song or Armies Of The Night? I also have a fondness for Deer Park although critically it may not be his best.
My introduction to Mailer came when the punk rocker I was living with at the time, rolled over in bed and told me she got me something for my birthday and proceeded to hand me a paperback copy of Tough Guys Don’t Dance. I was hooked after that for as a young writer, I realized immediately I was getting a lesson in how to write with each page. I’m a lousy groupie though. Just isn’t my style. I don’t read many celeb bio’s. I had read one about Leon Uris last year and was disappointed for I came away realizing that if I had met the man personally, I may not have liked him that much. I was afraid the same might happen to me with this book on Mailer, that a guy who has totally influenced me as a writer – and whom I learned later my mentor knew casually – would be lessened by intimate details of his personal life.
The book, Mornings With Mailer, is penned by Raymond who was Mailer’s personal assistant the last few years of his life. At times it is a bit overly sentimental but it is one of those kind of books that can easily get away with it due to the relationship between the two men. I do wish though it had spent a bit more time on Mailer’s writing habits and technique but maybe that is the writer in me longing for more. Still, I learned that Mailer was meticulous in research and loved it as much as I do. I was also impressed with the fact that Mailer felt like he needed to work every day, even when the mood wasn’t there. He realized that time is a finite commodity, to waste it is a crime against nature.
I also picked up on something else about Mailer from a phrase repeated in the book, “they needed that”. He would placate fans and help people because he understood the why of their action. Writers should always be focused on the why and this is central to Mailer’s writing and his personal life. Despite his public persona, Mailer was a private person who enjoyed a low-stakes poker game, tying one on with the guys down at the pub, the flirtation with a beautiful woman and from what my mentor said, a good discussion about the dynamics of poetry. No one could craft a sentence like Mailer – writers take notes – and poetry was a challenge he wished to master on a greater level.
This book is an easy read, like I said, I wish it had more nuts and bolts about Mailer and his craft but Raymond tells the story through his eyes so it only dives one level down when I wish it had gone two. Still, it is an interesting glimpse of the man that shaped our literary world for half a century. Unlike Uris, I walked away from this book energized as a writer, my esteem for Mailer intact, and feeling like I need to raise my professional standards. In fact, I learned there is an organization called The Norman Mailer Society dedicated to studying his work and I may join them later in the year.
The age of the American novel may be dead but Mailer is the only author on my bookshelf that I am diligently trying to read all of his material. That will be difficult since there are like nearly 50 major pieces of work. I’m doing at least one of his novels every year, this year’s choice is The Naked And The Dead. I’m sure there’ll be a post about it down the line. In the meantime, learn more about the writer with this book which I’ll score 5/5, or better yet, pick up one of Mailer’s novels. It would be the way he’d most want to introduce himself to you.