The Prisoner of Text

Norman Mailer in 1948, credit Wikipedia

The Prisoner of Text

Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer, Richard Bradford, Bloomsbury Caravel, pp 304, £18, reviewed by Bill Hartley                           

The title may well be ironic, given Mailer’s wife beating habits. This biography has been published to coincide with the centenary of his birth and mercilessly examines his reputation both personal and professional. Born in New York to a Jewish family, Mailer was found to have an extraordinarily high IQ. At sixteen, he was considered ready for Harvard where he studied engineering sciences.

The author doesn’t waste time on Mailer’s childhood, indeed the only thing of lasting importance to note is that his mother was convinced she had given birth to a genius and retained this belief throughout her life. To her, Norman could do no wrong. Given subsequent events this stretches credulity beyond breaking point, not that it seems to have bothered her. On one occasion, Mailer slammed his wife’s head against a cupboard leaving her stunned. His mother arrived on the scene and asked him: ‘Are you alright?’

Mailer saw service in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. During his induction the Army was astonished at his mathematical skills. As author Richard Bradford notes, it was certainly puzzling that he never sought a commission or a role in signals or intelligence. If he had a preference for infantry combat then this was hardly realised, since he spent most of his time on what the US Army calls rear echelon duties. However, out of this experience came one of the great novels of the Second World War, The Naked and the Dead. The book broke through the clutter of war stories which were appearing in the late forties and for Mailer it was, to paraphrase Lord Byron, a case of ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous’. The book even drew comparisons with Tolstoy from some reviewers. From this point onwards the real Norman Mailer emerges and it is probably safe to say that the author has no liking for his subject. Indeed it makes one wonder who could, save for his mother. Despite this he had no difficulty in attracting women.

Convinced of his genius, Mailer entered radical politics. It must have been a challenge for a biographer to make sense of his affiliations. To his credit, Bradford manages to achieve some clarity and he leaves the reader to assess Mailer’s eccentricities and wonder how he ever saw them as a platform for political office. At one stage he was embracing communism and seems to have made no enquiry into how awful this system could be. His views evolved into what Bradford describes as a vague kind of Anarcho-Trotskyism. Coming up with any kind of concrete definition of Mailer’s politics would be a challenge, so this may have to do. His forays into actual politics were equally strange. He stood in the New York City mayoral election of 1961 and surprisingly his bizarre manifesto attracted a few thousand votes.

A difficulty for the reader lies in keeping up with his wives (six in all) and distinguishing them from the various and overlapping girlfriends. The reader might suspect that Mailer had something of a masculinity problem. Bradford’s biography shows him to be capable of chronic infidelity, which seems to have served to plunge his affairs into yet more chaos. He hints at the masculinity issue but wisely leaves the reader to decide.

Occasionally the story becomes comically grotesque. Mailer began to imagine himself as an advisor to the soon to be elected John F Kennedy (so much for the radical politics) and he continued to hero worship the man post assassination. He may, however, have spoilt his chances by writing to the soon to be First Lady suggesting they meet to discuss the works of the Marquis de Sade. Unsurprisingly, Jackie Kennedy failed to reply and subsequently gave instructions that she wouldn’t attend any literary gathering where he was a guest.  If Mailer hadn’t been a man so in love with his own genius then it might be assumed he was a ground breaking satirist. Other delusions occurred when he entered the world of boxing. Mailer convinced himself that despite being overweight and unfit he was capable of being a worthy sparring partner for professional boxers. It didn’t occur to him that they were showing deference to the famous writer by pulling their punches. However, on one occasion he narrowly avoided the wrath of Jake (the Raging Bull of the Bronx) La Motta, who wasn’t known for pulling his punches in or out of the ring.

Whilst Mrs Kennedy managed to miss the worst of Mailer his wives weren’t so lucky. Most unfortunate of all was second wife Adele whom Mailer stabbed, near fatally. Amazingly, he escaped with a three year suspended sentence, something which the author points out might have been given to a first time burglar.

The book takes us through Mailer’s literary career good, bad and awful, Armies of the Night being rated as one of his best later accomplishments. Some others added little to his reputation. Perhaps the most significant though was The Executioner’s Song which won him a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980. The book was written when the moratorium on executions in the US had been lifted by the Supreme Court. This was at a point when liberal opinion in America had become convinced that the country would follow Western Europe in outlawing the death penalty for good.

Then there was the drinking and drug taking. Mailer would think nothing of making a public appearance having slugged half a bottle of bourbon. Given the warnings he received from his doctors it is impressive that he reached the age of 84. That said, when the inspiration was upon him, he was quite capable of abandoning these distractions and sustaining a ferocious work rate.

Bradford also highlights the importance of Mailer’s agent who did a superb job negotiating fees. For example, his publisher Random House paid him $30,000 per month provided that he committed all single authored book length projects to them. Although he was one of the wealthiest authors in the world, Mailer needed all the money he could get, in order to pay alimony to the retinue of ex wives and meet other family commitments.

Mailer’s was a life of chaotic creativity which the author documents effectively, though the reader may eventually grow weary of one embarrassing incident after another. That said, this is a very readable account of an extraordinary life, with many personal and professional highs and lows, though given Mailer’s ego perhaps the lows didn’t even register.

William Hartley is a critic and social historian


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