Sunday, December 01, 2019

Norman Mailer: A Double Life (2013)

There were already at least four biographies of Norman Mailer when J. Michael Lennon's brick was published in 2013. I'm not sure why it's the one I grabbed but generally by the reviews I seem to have made the right choice. It is detailed and exhaustive, covering every step of Mailer's professional development, from The Naked and the Dead in 1948 to The Castle in the Forest in 2007. Lennon was a friend and colleague of Mailer and his huge family, which probably makes him the "authorized" biographer. He is more kind, or politic, than I would be on some of Mailer's work (notably The Prisoner of Sex and maybe Ancient Evenings). But he also attempts to imbibe the Mailer spirit and let the chips fall where they may on some of the ugliest chapters, such as Mailer stabbing his second wife (a crime that would have sent many to prison) or his judgment vouching for the parole of Jack Abbott. Mostly I appreciated getting the stories more or less straight. I feel confident I could pass a test now on who each of his six wives were, though I'm probably still muddled on which of the nine kids belongs to whom. I'm envious of his support too—his greatest fan, from inside the womb, was his doting mother. It's such an improbable life in many ways. He studied engineering in college but already wanted to be a great American novelist. He tried to get out of being drafted but decided war experience would be good for his literary career—and it was. Mailer and James Jones are generally credited with writing the "great" American novels about World War II—conventional in many ways, but big and sprawling and ambitious. Jones never tinkered much with his impulses to churn out massive pulpy narratives, but Mailer went around the bend a few different ways, eventually arriving, 30 years later, with The Executioner's Song, back at writing very big books—but now with virtually all the pulp extruded. Jones never came close to the place. Lennon's title means all kinds of things—the double portion of vitality Mailer seemed to have, his lifetime of philandering (well detailed here, speaking of delicious pulp—he had sex with Gloria Steinem!), and his theology / cosmology in which he believes every person bears two conflicting persons at war in a single body. Beyond that an intriguing vision that God is not omnipotent and is engaged in a deadly war with Satan. Mailer's case for faith is thus that God needs all the help he can get. On the other hand it does make some intuitive sense and explains a lot about what we can see in the world and church. I think one of Lennon's ambitions is to restore that side of Mailer's work to credibility. It was often ignored, or laughed at and treated as a joke. Lennon's biography is so thorough and answers so many questions about Mailer, he's entitled to advocate for what he likes. If you have any interest in Mailer it's also fun to read.

In case it's not at the library.

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