It is never easy with Norman Mailer to separate the artist from the celebrity. It is even harder to distinguish in his writings what is literature from what is publicity. Perhaps Mailer, with characteristic cocksureness, stands astride both worlds, literature’s and journalism’s, without a sure foot in either. Certainly, as Jonathan Yardley avers, Mailer’s huge accomplishment “has been to bestow a measure of literary respectability on journalism.”
In 1974, Robert Brustein, then director of the Yale Repertory Theater, called Mailer the current impresario of “news theatre,” an arena in which certain celebrities exploit the media and, in turn, are exploited. Among writers, wrote Brustein, Ernest Hemingway and J. D. Salinger earned “news- theatre” star billing in the 1940’s and 1950’s, respectively.
Appropriately enough, The Time of Our Time, a 1,300- page literary retrospective of Mailer’s oeuvre, opens with “Boxing with Hemingway,” an excerpt from Cannibals and Christians (1966), published in his forties. Hemingway was Mailer’s early prose model and the paradigm for the persona he sought to create. The Naked and the Dead (1948), Mailer’s first novel, extends his master’s telegraphic style in a book that may be longer than all of Hemingway’s novels put together, if one excepts For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and the posthumous fiction.
The macho myth the Hemingway promulgated was appropriated, in degree if not in kind, by his Brooklyn-reared, Harvard-educated disciple. Hemingway retained, it was said, 237 shrapnel scars from World War I. That wounding experience at nineteen shaped his life and fiction. Mailer, a rifleman in a Manila-bound support platoon in World War II, saw little action but learned much.
He wrote much of it down in letters to Bea Silverman, who would become the first of his six wives. These letters formed the basis of The Naked and the Dead, which made him famous at twenty-five, as The Sun Also Rises had made Hemingway, who was a year older. Hemingway boxed much but poorly and was always looking for a fight. Mailer became, according to his coach and friend, boxer José Torres, good enough to compete in the Golden Gloves tournaments. In his forties, he was usually thirsting for a fistfight; in his fifties, he used his thick Afro-styled head to advantage in many a drunken butting match. Mailer, whose reversion from the “I” in Advertisements for Myself (1959) to “Mailer” in Armies of the Night, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize ten years later, always writes in the confessional mode, never more so than in The Fight, his surreal 1974 report on the Muhammed Ali- George Foreman heavyweight title match in Zaire.
Mailer had agreed to go running with Ali one morning shortly before the fight. Walking back to his quarters, Mailer suddenly envisions a heroic scenario for his own death. In the African woods, he hears a lion roaring. His mind flashes back to Provincetown, when, sailing in a small boat, he had passed a whale.
He had recognized at the moment that there was nothing he could ever do if the whale chose to swallow him with his boat. Yet he felt singularly cool. What a perfect way to go. His place in American literature would be forever secure. They would seat him at Melville’s feet. Melville and Mailer, ah, the consanguinity of the M’s and the L’s—how critics would love Mailer’s now discovered preoccupations (see Croft on the mountain in The Naked and the Dead) with Ahab’s Moby Dick.
The usual format for an omnibus of one writer’s collected excerpts would be chronological. Mailer, recognizing that he “had lived through fifty years of American time, and [his] sense of the [nation’s] character had shifted in each decade,” decides on a nonchronological plan. Each piece appears under one of some sixty headings in accordance with the year it refers to rather than the year it was written.
Of all these headings, that long stalemate between world powers known...
(The entire section is 1677 words.)