Of the generation of American novelists recently passed—Bellow, Styron, Vonnegut—none is harder to come to terms with than Norman Mailer, who died last Saturday at the age of 84. In part that is because his celebrity is nearly unimaginable today, and in part because his personality was so outsized; but mostly it's because no great writer—and he was, at his best, as great as he said he was—ever wrote quite as much crap.
It's astounding, really, and almost inexplicable, that a man who could write books as keen and inexhaustible as The Executioner's Song and Why Are We in Vietnam? could also write Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, along with a half-dozen or so other works that were comparably lazy, clumsy, and fatuous. And beyond that, there were his public pronouncements about sex, art, and ambition, plastic and cancer and television, and God, and the Kennedys, and America. … As a rule, novelists are about as interesting when they talk about politics as political thinkers are when they talk about the novel. Mailer made the mistake of thinking otherwise more often—far more often—than most.
But his public persona was mostly a performance, and as such it was, not just distinct from his writing, but generally inimical to it (as Mailer himself would eventually admit). What's more, there was a teasing, theatrical quality to it that a lot of people seemed to have missed. Much has been said about Mailer's obsession with masculinity and brutality: the dicta, the focus on boxing, war, murder, and the terrible mistake he made with Jack Henry Abbott. Gore Vidal once compared him to Charles Manson, which was silly, but there's no doubt that Mailer's stance on the question of manhood was troubling, at least when he was hawking it. He was right about some things—for example, about the use, if not the necessity, of danger for turning boys into men—but he was wrong about much more: about the difference between danger and violence, about the purposes and pleasures of sex, and above all, about women, whom he often loved, sometimes hated, and almost never understood.
Still, I don't think he was merely chauvinistic—it was more complicated than that. There was always an element of self-consciousness to his bluster. He was wholly without guile, calculation, or opportunism, and he was incapable of shrewdness, a rare and appealing trait in someone with his ambition; but he knew a good role when he saw one. Some years ago, paraphrasing Auden on Rilke, I described Mailer as the greatest lesbian writer since Gertrude Stein. It's a judgment I stand by, with cheerful regards to all parties concerned. Because he wasn't macho, after all, though that's what he was usually accused of: He was butch.