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.