The Lives of Norman Mailer

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE LIVES OF NORMAN MAILER is an aptly named book, for the subject of Carl Rollyson’s biography is a constantly changing, ever elusive figure whose individual and literary histories are a record of mutation, adaptation, and reinvention. As well known for his combative personal life as for his often controversial writing, Norman Mailer receives, in Rollyson’s work, the sort of careful and nonprejudiced examination he deserves but has often been denied.

When the young Mailer published THE NAKED AND THE DEAD in 1948, he was instantly catapulted into the position of being one of the most promising of postwar American writers. Promises can be ominous things, and Mailer was determined not to mire himself of his talent in rewriting the same novel for the rest of his career. Instead, he began to re-create himself even as he re-created his writings.

As Rollyson shows with telling effect and careful attention to detail, the changes in Mailer’s prose style, his choice of subject, and his approach to art are all paralleled in his personal life. The result of all these changes has been a man who appears to be a walking contradiction. Originally hailed as a novelist, Mailer’s greatest achievements have been in imaginative journalism, such as THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT, about the march on the Pentagon in 1968, and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG, about murderer Gary Gilmore; a supporter of such progressives as John F. Kennedy, Mailer holds so many contradictory political views he must label himself a “left conservative.”

Nowhere are the controversies around Mailer thicker than in his relationship with women,k and the question of his talent. For years it has seemed that Mailer delighted in baiting the Women’s movement, provoking its members with outrageous comments about sex and equality. Rollyson’s examination of Mailer’s tangled views of creativity and sexuality is especially revealing in this context. As for Mailer and his talent, Rollyson clearly believes in them, and makes a balanced but persuasive case for both, in this lucid and very intelligently written account of the many lives of Norman Mailer.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, October 1, 1991, p. 235.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, August 1, 1991, p. 996.

Library Journal. CXVI, September, 1991, p. 192.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 6, 1991, p. 86.

The Washington Post. October 29, 1991, p. C3.

The Lives of Norman Mailer

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Brave is the biographer who writes the story of a still-living subject, and braver still the biographer who tackles an individual who has surprised the public and confounded his critics in the past and may yet surprise and confound again. When the subject of the biography is an artist, whose life extends beyond his personality to his work—for neglected novels rediscovered, forgotten paintings found, and dismissed films revived are the constant, if unacknowledged, possibilities and hope of every artist—then the biographer has set out on a course hedged about with more than the usual share of dangers. Add to this already dangerous path a subject who has a volatile personality, a propensity, even compulsion, to shock, and an outrageous talent and intelligence often put to complex and infuriating projects; that is the challenge Carl Rollyson faced when he set himself to writing The Lives of Norman Mailer.

Seldom has a book been so aptly entitled, for the subject has crashed and stormed—no less forceful verbs will do—his way through the American literary, intellectual, political, and cultural scene since his brilliant debut, The Naked and the Dead (1948), with an aggressive, pugilistic energy that has both fascinated and appalled onlookers. There is Mailer the novelist, Mailer the journalist, Mailer the filmmaker, Mailer the mystic biographer of Marilyn Monroe, Mailer the political activist and candidate, Mailer the wife-stabber, Mailer the brawler, Mailer the thinker, Mailer the . . . well, the blanks are there for the biographer to complete, and Rollyson has not shirked the challenge.

Carl Rollyson has undertaken the task of putting a modern Proteus between two covers, and he has succeeded brilliantly. There are many Mailers, and Rollyson has rendered them in clear, unvarnished view, the shadows of defeat and failure mixed with the lights of triumph and success. Norman the Pulitzer Prize winner is here, and so is Norman the Barbarian and all the other Normans in between.

Mailer’s life and literature are connected to a degree unusual even for American authors, who tend to have their personalities and their books melded together in popular and, to large extent, scholarly minds. Particularly in the twentieth century American authors have been celebrities whose antics beyond the typewriter and outside the study have influenced their public recognition. F. Scott Fitzgerald carousing in Paris; Ernest Hemingway bothering large, dangerous animals in Cuba and Africa; J. D. Salinger reclusing in rural New Hampshire; Jack Kerouac road- and mind-tripping across America—these are more than writers; they are characters in an external fiction observed with greater interest than anything in their books.

To this crew comes Norman Mailer, who, as Rollyson amply demonstrates, seems to have the greatest need and greatest ability to create and re-create his own persona, a multiply guised figure who fashions himself anew with each book, each television appearance, each interview. He is like Heracleitus’ river; one never encounters the same Mailer twice. Why this should be is a mystery that Rollyson does not fully penetrate; no fault to him, for such a task would be impossible. What Rollyson does accomplish, however, is to chart the passage of Norman Mailer through his career, tracing the changes, the shifts, and the new characters that the man constructs for himself, usually as a concurrent effort with his latest literary project.

Perhaps, Rollyson suggests, Mailer has been in flight from his upbringing as a bright Jewish boy whose mother always believed him destined for greatness and whose evident intelligence and talents made that maternal dream more than a fantasy. Perhaps, Rollyson also acknowledges, a creative artist such as Mailer has little choice but to fashion himself anew, using those changes as his method of growth and development. Or perhaps, Rollyson admits, there are other reasons, richer or darker than can be comprehended. Much of the value in this biography is its flexibility, which accommodates such an elusive figure.

That the changes are there, however, is beyond question, and Rollyson has produced a biography that lucidly and briskly follows them, tying them as is appropriate to Mailer’s development as a writer. This book is a literary biography in the best sense, because it takes the reader through Mailer’s career as an author, a career that manages to be both impressive and disturbing.

Here is Mailer the young lion, bounding into the arena with The Naked and the Dead, one of the most impressive debuts in American literature. That debut was both an achievement and an agony for Mailer, for there is no greater burden than promise, and Mailer surely has pondered Fitzgerald’s wise, sad observation that “there are no second acts in American lives.”

What then is a brilliant young war novelist to do but destroy that particular character and set out to create a new one, a rebel suitable for turbulent times as the century nears midpoint. Creation is...

(The entire section is 2075 words.)