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The International Writers Magazine
: From our archives: Norman Mailer appraised

Norman Mailer
Dean Borok

Mailer had more in common with his female adversaries than he would ever have cared to admit – a sense of physical diminutiveness and powerlessness that propelled him into an attitude of perversity.  What kind of man is he who feels the need to take after his wife and puncture her with a ballpoint pen?  He employed a lot of female tricks, like verbal aggression against a much larger guy, knowing that the guy would be forced to restrain himself for fear of going to jail.

Norman Mailer

Likewise, if he had been born into a larger and more impressive physique he might not have felt threatened by his women, who, after all, were about the same size he was.  The funny thing about Norman Mailer’s antagonism towards women is that he always felt the need to keep them around him.  He was married six times.  I have also had a life of endless problems with women and girls.  If you’re heterosexual and driven by hormones there’s no alternative.  But I never felt compelled to marry one. My father and my uncle were each also married five times.  I’ve been living with my present woman for five years and, believe me, this will be the last go-round for me.  If I am lucky enough to survive this latest disaster I will be very happy to live a bachelor’s life going into my old age.
Executioner's Song I read some of his books.  The one I liked best was “The Executioner’s Song” about Gary Gilmore, who was executed for murder.  Mailer was responsible for springing another murderer, Jack Abbott, from prison once, because he could write a little bit, but immediately after being released Abbott stabbed another man to death and was immediately sent back.  After that Mailer never again involved himself in social issues.

 Mailer and Ernest Hemingway were consumed by the ideal of the writer as a man of action.  Hemingway was able to see the world as a traveling correspondent for The Toronto Star.  André Malraux was born into an environment of adventurers, his father and grandfather having traveled widely throughout Africa and the Maghreb.  This additionally frustrated Mailer who, with the exception of serving in World War II as a cook, hardly ever left New York.
Maybe if he really spent more time in foreign places and prowled the exotic climes of Soviet Samarkand and Ushuaia instead staying ensconced lifelong in the Brooklyn that he both detested and couldn’t tear himself away from (like with his women) he could have become the man of action that he always promoted himself and dreamed of being.  Maybe. 

Mailer did his best work while he was still young and then lived ever after on his previous accomplishments.  Another writer like that who comes to mind is Hunter S. Thompson, who, well into his sixties, had to refer back to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which he wrote close to a half-century ago, in order to validate himself.  Didn’t these writers learn anything new later in their lives, when they should have known a lot more?  Writers are not intellectuals, they’re artists.  Tolstoy inspired a whole generation with the beauty of his philosophy, but he died without being able to resolve the contradiction of his own personal unhappiness. (Incidentally, one of the major themes of “War and Peace” was the alacrity with which men went to war to escape their women and live in a masculine environment).
The writers of Mailer’s age were all a psychological mess.  Never mind Hunter S. Thompson, he burnt out immediately.  Saul Bellow was so emotionally fragile that he couldn’t even be in the room with anybody who was even remotely a threat to him.  Once he met Nelson Algren in a Chicago bar for a drink, by pre-arrangement, and he walked out after five minutes.
Algren was another tough guy writer, what with the motorcycle jacket.  Hunter S. Thompson liked to shoot off firearms.  There used to be a guy named Eric Hoffer who was a philosophical stevedore.  Where the tough guy nonsense came from, who knows?  But it goes back to my theory that these people started writing at too young an age and later felt the need to authenticate themselves as something other than sterile academics.  I don’t include André Malraux in this because he was a rarified species indeed, who pursued his dreams of the queen of Sheba and the volcanoes of Chicastenango many times nearly at the cost of his life.  These guys who start writing at age 20, what can they possibly think they have to share with the world?  I only properly started writing after I had flunked out of every other earthly pursuit, ha-ha!  That is not strictly true, but the things I wrote as a young man so distressed people who were invested in their self-image of bourgeois respectability that whatever merit I manifested was buried by their natural human instinct to pretend to ignore the unpleasantness of the realities I ignited. 
Mailer is the last of his breed – literary writers who actually had something to say.  The modern age is as sterile as “Brave New World.”  I’ll use for my example the Frenchman, Houllebecq, who is shallow and narrow as a gutter, an office worker and sex tourist possessing no literary depth whatsoever. The only element that presents even a possibility of literary expression is the Internet, where writers can take their case directly to the reading public without being squeezed through a strainer by the publishing establishment.

Mailer Bibliography

© Dean Borok November 2007

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