This valuable biography of Norman Mailer is the first attempt to capture his life and career together as a whole. After so many years of having Mailer’s activities reported piecemeal, it is particularly instructive to have Hilary Mills’s careful reconstruction of the phases of Mailer’s still-evolving personality. She has interviewed a great number of his friends, family, and business associates and dutifully conveys their impressions of an unusually complex man. She has warily but firmly followed all of the controversies through which he has engaged the public’s attention and has shown how his notoriety has fed his work. Although she does not offer a truly critical biography that provides deep insight into his writing, she has at least described some of the important conditions out of which his significant books have emerged. Finally, she has managed to maintain an even-tempered voice no matter how outrageous and ridiculous her subject seems to get, for she thoroughly respects his genius without becoming partisan, and in her last pages, she praises his enormous talent without ultimately committing herself to a judgment of its lasting value. This is an understandable if arguable position to take, given that Mailer has, as Mills says, “a career with time still to run and with works to be written.”
Although Mills’s narrative is chiefly chronological, she begins her biography with the drama of Mailer’s much-condemned defense of Jack Abbott, a prison writer whose release on parole Mailer was instrumental in securing. Shortly after his release, Abbott stabbed and killed a young waiter, Richard Adan, on July 18, 1981. At the murder trial, Mailer spoke for Abbott and at a subsequent press conference expressed the hope that Abbott would receive a “light sentence” of about ten years. The press attacked Mailer not only for his seeming insensitivity to Adan’s brutal death but also because he appeared to be making a special case for writers, since he was particularly worried about the death of Abbott’s talent during a long prison term. Mills suggests that the press was also responding negatively to Mailer’s reputation for a fascination with violence, both in his life and his work. He had stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, about twenty-one years before his involvement with Abbott, and he had been in the news several times since then for his fights and disorderly conduct. Indeed, for many years he had flaunted a pugnacious, truculent persona. Although Mailer is later quoted in the biography as pointing out that Mailer the author, the creator of himself as a character in his work, is not the same as the everyday man, his self-promotion has made it seem otherwise. This is one of the paradoxes of Norman Mailer that Mills is anxious to explore. Mailer, the modest, middle-class Jewish son, very much the product of his strong mother, has transformed himself into a rough contender for the literary honor of becoming America’s greatest novelist. Defending himself in a press conference after testifying for Abbott, Mailer adopted at different times Southern and Irish accents, slipped in and out of different personas, and gave the press a condensed version of the many selves he has tried on in the course of his life. Mills shifts from this quintessential media event to Mailer’s quiet, serious, and well-received reading of his magnum opus, Ancient Evenings (1982), at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in Manhattan, where twenty years earlier he had given a controversial reading shortly after stabbing his wife. Thus, Mills dramatizes the paradigm of Mailer’s career: “Moving from the depths of rejection to the summit of appreciation in one day has not been unusual in the life of Norman Mailer.”
Throughout his career, as Mills shows, it has been Mailer’s strategy to court disaster in order to win success. Some of his most powerful prose has been provoked by his effort to get out of a jam—as E. L. Doctorow, one of Mailer’s editors, remarks to Mills. Mailer told the judge at the hearing, held to determine the charges against him for stabbing his wife, that it was his ambition to explore the most dangerous areas of existence—the forbidden territory that other writers evade. This was said not to relieve himself of responsibility for the stabbing but to argue for his freedom to explore any human subject at...
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