In a life of many garlands and much renown, it was Mailer’s strange engagement with literary destiny always to be trapped on the wrong side of his art. The mega-success of 1948’s The Naked and the Dead — his first novel — flung him into the radioactive limbo of celebrity, thereby blowing his Barton Fink dream of being a great and earnest social realist and writer-for-the-people. Then, when he had thrashed his way to some measure of intellectual serenity and wanted only a bit of room to ponder his mighty themes, the financial spur of divorce — one after another, five in all — goaded him into overproduction, hastiness, potboiling. As Playboy editor Arthur Kretchmer put it, “Norman’s a cosmic character with cosmic money needs.”
Always on the verge
In 1967 he published four books, as he did again in 1971. But Mailer’s potboiling was like no one else’s: his pot was a cauldron, and even its limpest confections (1980’s Of Women and Their Elegance is often cited in this regard) had some saving flavor of hubble-bubble about them.
In the largest irony of all, his career as a novelist — the decades-long march of enormous books — proved to be a red herring. Blustering gravely about “the Big One” that he was always on the point of delivering, tied apparently for good to an elephantine ambition, he performed with his free hand the feats for which he was most loved, and will be most remembered: the journalism, the activism, the crazy movies; the arrests, the disgraces, the campaigns, the television appearances; the sensation, finally, that he introduced into American life — the sensation of a large and precariously balanced intellect working white-hot, at full tilt.
His researches were all his own. It took a uniquely heretical sensibility to suggest to a late-’50s readership, as jazz and dope swirled in the clubs and psychedelia shimmered on the horizon, that taking drugs might involve “draining the substance of God” — that the artificial engineering of one’s own bliss, in other words, might have consequences for one’s soul. (Neurochemistry has in a curious way borne him out on this point, as all druggies know who have come close to burning up their life’s ration of serotonin.) And leave it to Mailer, professor of the headbutt, to establish through many nights of cranial collision that “writers’ heads tended to be more rock-like, for example, than actors’, who suffered disproportionately from even a tap.” (Correct again, at least in my own case: though fragile in other areas, I have a forehead like the flat of a sledgehammer.)
His theology, like everything else, was home-brewed, a kind of bristling medieval existentialism: God was a vulnerable character seeking man’s aid in His fight against the Devil, and He was easily disappointed. Secular critics could never believe that Mailer was serious about this, and indeed it was a tough notion to swallow — that the shrewdest, subtlest comments on contemporary America were being made against a heavy-metal backdrop of swooping angels and demons.