Life on the High-Wire



By Mary V. Dearborn

Houghton Mifflin Co.

478 pp. $30


Life on the High-Wire



Norman K. Mailer '43--author of one of the most definitive World War II novels, The Naked and the Dead--has called the quote "Once a philospher, twice a pervert" his favorite saying. However, neither of these terms is adequate to describe Mailer, a literary icon whose life never seems to be enough to meet his own expectations. Mary V. Dearborn attempts to find more adequate terms to capture the life of this monumental man in Mailer, her new sweeping biography that examines both Mailer and his times. Dearborn fills the volume with extensive detail in an attempt to capture the underpinnings of the large-than-life persona found in his writings.

Mailer admired Hemingway immensely, and much of his life seems patterned after him. Mailer became a fan of bullfighting, took up boxing and exerted the chauvinistic bravado for which Hemingway was famous. However, both Mailer's life and his writing appear to fall short of his icon's legacy. Throughout Mailer, its subject appears to be without direction and confidence, but instead acting upon whatever spurs his imagination at the moment. While he has been a major figure in American literature in the second half of the 20th century, one wonders what would have become of Mailer if he had never published The Naked and the Dead at age 23. Although the success and brilliance of the novel secured him a position as writer for life, he was never able to match the popularity of his first book.

Mailer enrolled at Harvard in 1939. He lived in Grays 11-12 with two Jewish roomates. He majored in aeronautical engineering while belonging to the Advocate and the Signet. At that time, both social class and academic performance determined whether or not a student was accepted into one of the Houses. After being denied his sophomore year, Mailer got into Dunster House in his junior year and became a member of the "Dunster Funsters." Dearborn writes that Mailer never got over "the lingering snobbishness he had somewhat uneasily observed and absorbed at Harvard."

After college, Mailer served in the Philippines during World War II. He used many of his personal experiences in writing The Naked and the Dead, which became an enormous, unexpected success. Mailer viewed the book as a serious anti-war tract, and its popularity startled him. "I must have done something wrong," he remarked. "They shouldn't have liked it." He had burst onto the scene as a major new writer and felt enormous pressure to follow up The Naked and the Dead with an even greater book, but he never would write "the big one" that he always yearned for.

Although Mailer often appears reckless and on the cutting edge of society, most of his exploits appear to be vain attempts to attract attention or to escape an inferiority complex. He seems consumed by a constant drive to prove his masculinity and assert his sexuality. In addition, Dearborn details Mailer's substance abuse, from alcohol to marijuana to prescription pills. In addition, and some would say as a result, Mailer had trouble establishing positive relationships with women. He hardly endeared himself to feminists with lines like "I like to marry women whom I can beat once in a while, and who fight back." Married six times with mistresses on the side, he was still able to develop a friendship with Gloria Steinem. Mailer's comments seem absurd, and seem less a result of male chauvinism and more a tool with which Mailer attempted to get more popular attention.

When John F. Kennedy '40, a former Crimson editor, captured the presidency in 1960, Mailer, who covered the election, was convinced that his celebrity and image might just be enough to win an election. Mailer decided to throw his hat into the New York City mayoral race. Dearborn describes his thoughts about the campaign: "His constituency, as he saw it, was New York's disenfranchised: the criminals, the junkies, the prostitutes, the runaways, the hipsters; he hoped to build a coalition between them and the artists, writers, and intellectuals of his own set." To kick off his campaign, Mailer wrote an open letter to Fidel Castro, praising the Cuban Revolution and asking Castro to request that Hemingway return to Cuba. Mailer finally started to come apart at the seams during his campaign. He struck his sister Barbara across the face in an argument, breaking her glasses. After an evening of drunkeness and ill-humor, Mailer stabbed his wife twice, narrowly missing her heart. But his family and wife protectively covered up the incident, and he escaped the incident with his reputation mostly intact and receiving only probation.

The most endearing quality about Dearborn's biography is how it illustrates Mailer's colossal ego and his ultimate failure to live up to his own image of himself. The biography could almost paint Mailer in a tragic light, but ultimately he seems too unconcerned, too disconnected from a reality and an America that he himself helped to fashion. Instead, Mailer's life appears comic, with the only constant being his love of shock tactics and always appearing unpredictable. Although he has lived a life full of exciting people and events, I don't necessarily envy Norman Mailer. It seems like he could never enjoy any of it, like it was just one escapade after another, and that he never really found whatever he was looking for.

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