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...