Pulling No Punches

Norman Mailerby J. Michael Lennon

Simon & Schuster. 960p $40

After he finished reading an earlier biography of himself, Norman Mailer told me, with a mixture of rue and triumph, “He missed the twinkle.” His new biographer, J. Michael Lennon, does not miss the twinkle or much else about the writer who swaggered across a half century of American life, writing novels, plays, poems, essays, journalism, even some theological speculation along with directing movies. Near the end Mailer stood, propped on two canes like a wounded mercenary who had fought behind the lines all his life, a writer/celebrity as drained by the daring and scope of his ambition to find the Northwest Passage to the origins of American mores as Theodore Roosevelt was when, scarred and fevered, he emerged from his post-presidential search for the source of the Amazon.

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I knew Mailer well for 35 years, but I know him better after finishing Lennon’s remarkable evocation of his Promethean life. One of Norman’s favorite quotations was from André Gide, “Please do not understand me too quickly.” Lennon has not done this. He has proceeded with the patience of a medieval artist from Ravenna contemplating the array of glittering tiles on his work table, then selecting and testing their tone and clarity by turning them one by one against the sun before fitting them carefully into a panel that reveals the tort cake-like layers, some bitter but many sweet, of the truth of his subject.

Mailer and Teddy Roosevelt, each a burly and electric presence, shared not only a driving curiosity about life but a code of living. It was a code adopted also by Ernest Hemingway, in whose big, two-hearted river of style Mailer bathed like a biblical pilgrim, about finding courage by stepping boldly into the tiger’s cage to stare him down or wrestle him barehanded to his doom or one’s own. Is it a coincidence that these three are often pictured in safari jackets, the armor of secular knights bound to obey the Arthurian command to “enter the forest at its darkest part,” where no one had cut a path before? Mailer, like Hemingway, would take gambler’s risks (his father was a gambler) to steal the fire of the gods to scatter the choking mist of dread, a concept much used by Mailer, that hung like ground fog over the Grail of the deepest and most dangerous human secrets.

Neither Mailer nor Hemingway—a paperback copy of one of whose books lay on Mailer’s otherwise spare writing desk—would put aside T.R.’s big stick as they used a club fighter’s feints and punches to stake their claim on the heavyweight title of American writing. As Lennon makes clear, Mailer, the Saturday morning amateur boxer and the brawling score-settler at Saturday night society parties, was, like Hemingway, never done with affirming his manhood as he wrote, using as many styles as Picasso, about human love, human strife and human longing, scaling the walls of an overgrown Eden to find the Grail of true experience.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil still stood, a gnarled and silent witness to the Fall and every human impulse compromised and infected by this original failure, including the birth of lust and the murderous impulse for brother to slay brother. With exquisite and painful sensitivity, Mailer felt the hard human truths that lay beneath the hypocritical repressions of the 20th century and, again like Hemingway, used his own experience as a sounding board, to chart the painfully unearthed secrets about love and betrayal, of every brave and every mean act committed by humans down through the uncounted generations.

Lennon follows Mailer from his obscure Brooklyn boyhood to the summit of his fame in the apartment, the lower floors of which he sold off to pay off his taxes, in Brooklyn Heights. In an unhurried way he tells a handful of tales about Mailer’s growing up, spoiled by a bevy of aunts but especially by his mother, Fan, who whispered in his ear as a baby that she hoped he would grow up to be a famous man. Lennon does not force the story but lets it tell itself about the influence of these indulgent women on his sense of power and destiny.

Mailer once told me that if he were arrested for killing 1,000 people at a shopping mall, his mother would say that these people must have done something terrible to upset Norman so much. She seems to have felt as much in one of Mailer’s most notorious acts, using a pen knife on his second wife Adele Morales that wounded her far more grievously than he intended and landed him in Bellevue Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Mailer’s collision with the feminist movement earned him the disdain of leaders like Germaine Greer. When the Chicago Tribune book editor John Blades asked me to ask Norman to review a book by her for that newspaper, he replied with good humor, “Some checks should never be cashed.”

The stories of Mailer’s pursuit of six wives, with whom he fathered nine children, are counterpointed by serial infidelities, affairs as ripe and plentiful as a bumper crop, that Mailer only seriously tried to stop under the influence of his last wife, the bright beauty queen, painter and writer from Arkansas, Norris Church, who stood up to him, forcing him, as he said, into his last great experiment, fidelity. This was not a complete success either, as Lennon makes clear as he, so to speak, uses the backstory of Mailer’s marriages as the equivalent of color commentary on his prodigious literary output.

Lennon, a onetime literature professor, observes Norman, with whom he worked for 30 years, with great human understanding for Mailer but applies his critical faculties dispassionately to his subject’s writing. Unlike many literary biographers who try to recreate their subject from months in dusty university archives, Lennon knew Mailer well, observed everything and gives a master class in Mailer’s writing with which Norman would not disagree.

His Conquest

The story of Norman’s conquest of American letters with his World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, made him famous at 25 and set him on a career marked with follow-up disappointments to himself and most of the critics with The Barbary Shore and his novel of Hollywood,The Deer Park, a work whose main character was named Sergius O’Shaughnessy, a not incidental indication of his fascination with the Irish, and a book he never quite let go of, tinkering with it, trying everything but mouth to mouth resuscitation, even dramatizing it for Broadway, to stir it to life.

Mailer, smoking pot and drinking, wrote in a creative fog for a period in the 1950s, but he worked his way through that and all the collateral damage his behavior did to his home life and his professional reputation.

He emerged, riding the political and cultural winds of the times, with collections like Advertisements for Myself and Cannibals and Christians, which shine, in their unnerving accuracy in rendering the national mood and their sheer genius for presenting himself as the sounding board for American experience. His essay on “The White Negro,” with its provocative attribution of a kind of courage to those who broke out of their sociological no man’s land by violent acts, placed him in the limelight, some would say the crosshairs, of critics and the reading public. His long Esquire piece, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” on John F. Kennedy attracted wide attention and set Mailer on a career within a career, providing vivid accounts of political conventions and campaigns in the turbulent Sixties. Lennon recounts all this of Mailer, lashed to the wheel of his own storm struck vessel, endlessly searching for that Northwest Passage into the heart of the nation’s experience.

He never gave up on that quest and, writing of himself in the third person, produced The Armies of the Night, grasping, as he once told me, “the high wire of irony,” in a masterly account of the anti-Vietnam War march on the Pentagon in 1967. That book, like the tightly disciplined masterpiece, The Executioner’s Song, about the murderer Gary Gilmore, won the Pulitzer Prize and placed Mailer once more in the front ranks of American writers.

While all this was going on, Mailer was still working on his long awaited Egyptian novel, Ancient Evenings, that, when it finally appeared in 1982, brought a mixed chorus of reviews but a recognition of the sections, like the opening one on the embalming and entombing of an Egyptian royal, filled with the kind of magic of which Mailer was capable.

Lennon matches Mailer’s literary and personal lives seamlessly, informing and educating the reader at the same time. Mailer kept writing and making public appearances even after his bad knees required him to stump about on a pair of canes. A week after 9/11 he invited my wife and me to a gathering of American intellectuals at the Cape Cod home of the psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton. The attack, Norman whispered to us, had left them reeling because it shredded the flag of the politics that had become the equivalent of their creed. Mailer spoke to this issue in a powerful extemporaneous talk that revealed the overflowing reservoir of his own spirituality and the small spilled cup of his listeners.

Meeting God

Mailer told me afterward that he would visit Ground Zero if my wife and I went with him “because there are spirits there.” We made the trip, a kind of pilgrimage for Norman, who insisted on walking with his canes despite the pain from his knees, something he felt that he should suffer on this landscape of sorrow and loss. He had written a novel in the previous decade, The Gospel According to the Son, in which he took on the voice of Jesus to tell the story that had pulled at his sleeve for attention ever since he had read it again some years before in a hotel room’s Gideon Bible.

A few years later, after open heart surgery, his 80th birthday and his feeling, as Lennon tells us, that he had become a battered freighter still plying the sea lanes, he asked Lennon to collaborate with him by drawing him out with questions about God. His only condition was that Lennon not give him the questions in advance so that his answers would be spontaneous. The book, finally called God, An Uncommon Conversation, is fascinating in its revelation of Mailer’s rich imagination and his determination to find that Northwest Passage before he died. He had Lennon send me the chapters to read as each was completed and asked me to comment. He welcomed my comments but, as I expected, changed nothing because of them. He often quoted St. Thomas Aquinas, “Trust the authority of your own instincts.”

Mailer speaks, as he often had, of an “embattled God” the outcome of whose contest with Satan depends on how we carry the tide of battle in our own lives. God, therefore, is winning here one day and losing there the next, but the eternal stakes are high and being human demands that we commit ourselves one way or the other. Lennon questions him on a broad range of subjects, and many of his responses would not be unfamiliar to process theologians. What always struck me about the exchange was the seriousness, perhaps passing that of any other contemporary American writer, with which Mailer, famed for his seeming social infamy, addressed the major issues of life. There may not be a better definition of morality than taking seriously “all that,” in Joyce’s phrase, “is grave and constant” in life.

Norman originally wanted to call the book “Into the Mystery,” for he knew that he would soon, as he would say, be “taking the bus,” and he wanted to make sure that he put the jigsaw puzzle of his life into as good order as possible. Lennon recreates these last months with an insight and tenderness that do not block out his biographer’s integrity. He recounts what I remember when my wife and I visited him in Provincetown a few weeks before he died. The table was crowded, but he asked us to sit on either side of him. He ate only some sticks of chocolate, the last thing he could really taste. He would be heading to the hospital for surgery on his lungs and the outcome was uncertain. Still, he was brimming with life as he looked into the face of death.

Here was Norman, I felt, the lion in autumn, ever courteous and ever curious, the man in full that Lennon brings to life in this book. “We love you, Norman,” I said as we embraced, and he whispered “I love you too.” That is the remarkable man behind all the fireworks of his life whom you will meet for yourself in J. Michael Lennon’s gripping and touching biography.

This review has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 20, 2014

An earlier version of this review misidentified the person Norman Mailer stabbed with a pen knife. It was Adele Morales, his second wife, not Carol Stevens, his fifth wife.

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