Even in his grave, Norman Mailer is providing gossip, with memoirs this year by his widow, his cook, and one of his mistresses. Yet despite the sea of women in Mailer’s life—six wives and countless lovers—his great literary handicap was the failure to learn from them.
Mailer with his sixth wife, Norris, in New York City, 1980
By Ron Galella.
What an active afterlife Norman Mailer has led! He’s left us behind and yet here he buzzes, a prodigious gossip item from beyond the grave. A writer who never stopped making news—from the age of 25, when his best-selling novel The Naked and the Dead captured the first beachhead of postwar American fiction, until his death at the age of 84 in 2007, when the critical ruckus over his final novel, The Castle in the Forest (a metaphysical proctology probe of the incipient evil of Adolf Hitler), shook the branches yet again—Mailer was too warrior-minded to let his words do all the talking. His fists and penis also played principal roles. Perhaps the most highly publicized American author of the modern era, the inheritor of Hemingway’s heavyweight-division machismo and cult of experience (taste that salty sea air, inhale that tarty perfume!), he punched his way through the paper walls of print to test himself on stage and screen (as scriptwriter, actor, and director), in the TV studio (behaving like a wrathful thundercloud in his infamous face-off with Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show), on the feminist battlefield (“I’m not going to sit here and listen to you harridans harangue me,” he barked in the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall), at the political racetrack (he ran for mayor of New York in 1969), and inside the boxing ring (sparring with José Torres on The Dick Cavett Show). Violence attended a life driving forward along the knife edge of one’s nerves. Mailer made shock headlines for stabbing his second wife, Adele Morales, at a party after she called him a “faggot,” and for co-sponsoring the release of prisoner Jack Henry Abbott, who, shortly after parole, stabbed a waiter to death in the East Village. By the time Mailer’s life neared its end, however, the fevers he had aroused had mostly burned off, dissipating into the winter sky, his hair and reputation glinting with statesman-like silver. More modesty entered his manner, yet the scale of his intentions remained overarching. Unlike some novelists as they enter the wind-down phase, Mailer didn’t miniaturize his ambitions in his senior years, aiming instead high and wide with mammoths such as Harlot’s Ghost, Oswald’s Tale, and the first installment of the Hitler prose epic, The Castle in the Forest, conceived as a Thomas Mann-ish seven-volume swan song. He intended to go out the way he came in: big.
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