It is fashionable to call Norman Mailer the bad boy of American literature and leave it at that. The underground stories about him circulate, and the incidents he provokes have become legend. Who has not heard about his poetry reading at the 92nd St. YMHA in New York, when officials rang down the curtain during a performance for the first time in twenty years? Or his nomination of Hemingway for President? Or his own candidacy for Mayor of New York? Or his belief that plastic causes cancer? Mailer, the cynics say, is "paceless, tasteless, and graceless."
"Please do not understand me too quickly," Mailer writes, and almost everything about the man disproves the Establishment's caricature of him as a fire-breathing, bad-mouthing ogre, whose only literary impulse is to fuel his own ego. Mailer is kind to children, careful to remember acquaintances' names, and polite even to the boorish fan who traps him after a reading with a five-minute, existential question.
Yet his appearance is true to his reputation as a brawler. Short, thick-chested, with a graying mass of Brillo for hair, he looks like an aging welter-weight. He throws sentences like punches, clipped, hard, sometimes below the belt--not surprising for a writer who churned out 20,000 words about a one-round Liston-Patterson fight and who has himself gone ten rounds with Jose Torres. Yet when others use boxing metaphors, he winces, demanding a better performance; the image, he implies, is his own thing, and indeed, when he cups his hands, leans forward, and drops one like "Maybe only cowards have problems," the style he has created for himself becomes complete and believable.
Mailer looks the heavy but more characteristically acts the role of the nation's thumb-wrestling champ. He used to hold the world title too, he says, but he was whipped one night by a Mexican bullfighter who had learned the sport that day. "I wonder," Mailer muses, looking off into the distance, "if he realized what he won." Because thumb-wrestling is not just a diversion for Mailer--he gives himself to it as totally as he does to his writing, his family, and his friends. "Norman is great at thumb-wrestling," says an old friend, "because he has strong thumbs and a desire to kill."
The instinct for the jugular may be the most important drive behind his work. In the back of his mind, Mailer admits, he too has been running for President, and at the very least, the last 25 years have been spent publicly campaigning for the title of Great American Novelist. He entered Harvard at 16, a skinny Brooklyn kid who wanted to study aeronautical engineering. But he discovered Farrell, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck in his first term, and knew then that he wanted to be a novelist. As a junior, he won Story magazine's fiction prize; at the Advocate in those years, he recalls, he was "the favored man of the people."
Then came the war, Mailer bet that Europe would be the stage for the great war novel, but the army put him in the South Pacific--giving him, he later said, the best backrop for The Naked and the Dead. Mailer came to feel that a war novel about Europe would have to include a good deal of commentary about the decline of its civilization; in the Pacific, he found that he could write about the American military in isolation.
At the age of 25, with a book he had written in 15 months, Mailer was famous. Sinclair Lewis called him the greatest writer of his generation. Mailer was a comer, the odds-on favorite for the title, but he seemed to have drained himself too early.) The only book he was now equipped to write, he remarked, was "The Naked and the Dead Go to Japan." But the mark of the great, or the would-be great, is that they can't do the same thing twice. Both of Mailer's next two novels, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, struck out with the critics; the latter was rejected by seven publishers, and Mailer even considered printing it at his own expense.
The revision of Deer Park's galleys was excruciating for him, and intense personal unhappiness, as well as the popular rejection of his work, convinced him that it was better to continue the campaign in other genres. "The shits are killing us," Mailer wrote bitterly, "even as they kill themselves." Better, then, to hammer the nails into the coffin directly than through the subtlety of fiction. Better, too, to give the heathens a guided tour than to lose them in the intricate patterns of one's thoughts. Best to wage total warfare, to offer open assault on a society which would not recognize its cancer even if one forced a mirror to its face. And thus was born Advertisements for Myself and later The Presidential Papers.
With his literary criticism and political essays, Mailer hit his stride as a phrase-maker; even his erstwhile debating opponent, William F. Buckley, calls him the most quotable writer of our time. Mailer dismissed Salinger as "the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school," said that Scranton's wheeler-dealers at the Republican convention "stood by idle wheels," and labelled Lyndon Johnson "the bully with an Air Force."
Johnson is Mailer's political obsession; his speech about LBJ at Berkeley last summer was cut off by the university radio station after ten minutes. Johnson, he said, invented the war to satisfy the rednecks who wanted to kill gooks, giving him an alternative to continued support of the civil rights movement. "Yes, thought the President," Mailer drawled, "his friends and associates were correct in their estimate of him as a genius. Hot damn. Vietnam. The President felt like the only stud in a whorehouse on a houseboat."
In the last few years, Mailer has proved himself equal to the task of taking on the literary and political world. His review of Mary McCarthy's The Group was devastating, and his piece on LBJ's Hope For America is a classic of literary demolition. He even dedicated Cannibals and Christians to Johnson, "whose name inspired young men to cheer for me in public."
Gut-fighting gives him a certain attractiveness. Mailer ame to Harvard last weekend, lashed out at the prevailing order, and half of his audience stood to applaud him. So during a half day in Cambridge, Mailer won the renewed enthusiasm of his seconds. He got a little ragged in the tenth round, he said, but he was generally pleased with his performance and the reception he enjoyed from his fans. He's not quite so popular at other schools; he's already been through the drug scene, the sex scene, and the political scene while many are just finding out that they exist.
It may be time for Mailer to write his "big novel," and it is said that he's hard at work on it. He's 44, and his moment is at hand; can he produce a book so large in vision, so perfect in execution, that the entire fabric of the national character is irrevocably altered? In its agony, the country cries out, he feels, for such a book, such a man. Mailer thinks he's got the guts and the talent to pull it off. That he has the personal grace and the devotion of a champion is conceded by all his partisans; whether the bad boy of American letters has grown enough in the last twenty years to win all the marbles is another issue. But Mailer is not the sort who quits when the stakes get high, and in the next few years, he will probably win his victory or burn himself out. After all the fighting, it would almost make a great novel in itself.