Norman Kingsley Mailer died on Saturday at Mount Sinai hospital in Manhattan. He was 84. The cause of death was acute renal failure one month after undergoing lung surgery. Mailer was one of the giants of 20th century literature and a larger-than-life figure whose lifestyle made as many headlines as his impressive body of work. Mailer married six times, fathered eight children, and ran for mayor of New York. His towering ego and keen sense of self-publicity always kept him newsworthy. Most renowned for his remarkable collection of novels, Mailer was also an accomplished journalist, a playwright and a director, producer and actor in several low budget movies.
Norman Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey on 31 January 1923 and was raised in Brooklyn. His father, Isaac Barnett was a South African Jew but it was his strong mother, Fanny Schneider, who dominated family life. Norman was always Fanny’s favourite He entered Harvard aged 16 to study aeronautical engineering. His big life-changing event occurred in an English class on modern American literature. He turned to writing and quickly had his first short story published by “Story” magazine, an important outlet for aspiring writers.
In 1943, Mailer graduated with honours from his engineering science degree and began to write a novel about life in a mental hospital. The novel never saw the light of day. Instead Mailer met and married Bea Silverman. In early 1944 Mailer was drafted into the Army and sent to the Philippines. Mailer mostly avoided the front line and served out the war as a cook in occupied Japan. But it was his single experience in combat in a patrol on the island of Leyte that was to serve as the raw material for his breakthrough novel. In 1948 that novel was published as The Naked and the Dead.
The Naked and the Dead tells the story of a 13 man patrol fighting on an unnamed Pacific atoll. The grim writing explored the sexual desires of the troops and examined the tense relationships between officers and enlisted men. It won universal critical and popular approval and sold 200,000 copies in three months. Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest war novels ever, it was criticised by some as a “Kinsey report on the sexual behaviour of the GI” and “pure army Billingsgate”. However it was less pure than they made out: Mailer coined a new word “fug” which he used liberally throughout the book as a euphemism for the then still publicly unacceptable “fuck”. Mailer himself had ambivalent feelings about the book. "Part of me thought it was possibly the greatest book written since ‘War and Peace’," he said. “On the other hand I also thought, ‘I don’t know anything about writing. I’m virtually an impostor.’”
Riding on the fame of his debut success, Mailer published Barbary Shore (1951) and Deer Park (1956) both of which were almost universally derided. Mailer drifted for much of the decade and was a heavy user of alcohol and marijuana. In 1955 he put up $10,000 to found The Village Voice with Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher. Mailer came up with the name and wanted the paper to be "outrageous" and "give a little speed to that moral and sexual revolution which is yet to come upon us.” Mailer soon became a regular columnist who in his first effort, promised. "I will become an habitual assassin-and-lover columnist who will have something superficial or vicious or inaccurate to say about many of the things under the sun, and who knows but what some of the night.”
Mailer quit after just four months blaming typographical errors in his column. Nevertheless the stint at the Voice honed Mailer’s undoubted journalist abilities. He was at the forefront of the 1960s New Journalism movement with Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe and he won the Pulitzer Prize on two occasions. The first time he won it for "The Armies of the Night" (1968), which also received the National Book Award. “Armies” was a journalistic novel in which he was the main character in the march on the Pentagon to stop the war. He won the Pulitzer again in 1979 for "The Executioner's Song" about convicted killer Gary Gilmore who was executed by the State of Utah for a brutal double murder.
The Armies of the Night reflected his decade-long preoccupation with, and opposition to, the American military presence in Vietnam. In 1967 Mailer also wrote “Why are We in Vietnam?” which despite the title was set in Alaska as two boys go on a last hunting trip before being sent off to the war. When the US finally acknowledged defeat in 1975, Mailer wrote in the New York Review of Books that “the responsibility for the war is entirely ours.”
In 1983 Mailer turned his attention to a different era when he published Ancient Evenings. The 1,200 page book was set in pharaonic Egypt of 3,000 years ago and Mailer spent 11 years researching the massive project. The book was blasted as dull by many critics. However Anthony Burgess included it in his 1984 collection of the “Best 99 Novels in English since 1945”. The Naked and The Dead was the only other Mailer work in Burgess’s list. Mailer topped the length of his Evenings with his CIA epic Harlot’s Ghost in 1992 which ran to almost 1,400 pages. Mailer ended that book with the promise “to be continued”.
But he was unable to keep his promise. Less than a month before he died, he published his final book called "On God: An Uncommon Conversation." The book takes the form of dialogues over three years with his friend and literary executor, Michael Lennon. Mailer remains uncompromising to the end, rejecting both organised religion and atheism. In his view there is an artistic but far from all-powerful God while humans are free to choose their own paths with a form of karmic come-uppance awaiting those who lead less than virtuous lives. But Mailer was never capable of being overly pious. "I think that piety is oppressive,” he wrote. “It takes all the air out of thought."