The authorized biography of a towering figure in 20th-century fiction and journalism.
Norman Mailer (1923-2007) became a celebrity, a bestselling author and a literary giant — all at the age of 25, when he published his war novel, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948). It took him almost another 20 years to match that achievement with “The Armies of the Night” (1968), his account of the antiwar march on the Pentagon, and then another 10 years to publish his masterpiece, “The Executioner’s Song” (1979), as much a mediation on America at mid-century as an account of the life and execution of Gary Gilmore. These books alone secure his place in the canon of American literature.
To be sure, Mailer has had his detractors, who dislike the romantic and rococo style that makes his body of work so uneven and sometimes even preposterous, and who despise his male chauvinism. And yet, among literary scholars and biographers, he remains a vital and indispensable figure. J. Michael Lennon, who met and became closely associated with his subject in the early 1970s, is the fifth biographer to take on Mailer, known for his pugnacious personality and seemingly chaotic sex life and domestic arrangements, which included six wives, nine children, and many, many lovers.
Much of the story up to the 1990s will be familiar to readers of previous Mailer biographies, although Lennon is able to supply more intimate details by relying on Mailer’s journals and letters, as well as on Lennon’s own Mailer log. Lennon handles this material well in terms of narrative pace. Although this is a long book, it is not tedious — if one realizes, early on, that Mailer is a wayward genius whose convoluted life cannot be understood through shortcuts.
Lennon is less satisfactory in his unwillingness to probe Mailer’s motivations and explanations of his behavior. For example, it is never quite clear why Mailer waited to be drafted, even though his early fiction clearly reveals a young man both attracted to and fearful of violence. Lennon has a tendency to smooth everything out in anodyne prose. Thus he deems Mailer’s ridiculous movie adaptation and direction of his inferior novel “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” “not without its virtues.” Whereas Mailer never missed an opportunity to offend, Lennon seems determined to upset no one.
On balance, Lennon does, however, reveal his subject’s double life, his honesty and deceitfulness, and his remarkably self-deluding but self-aware sensibility. If not the last word on Norman Mailer (what could be?), this book is likely to be the standard biography for this generation.
Carl Rollyson is the author of “Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic,” “Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography” and “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath.”