Saturday, November 10, 2007

Rest in peace...if you even can.

Comes news, this morning, of the death of Norman Mailer. For decades regarded as the preeminent voice in American letters (among only a handful of select contenders, like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth), Mailer was as famous for his prickly nature and imperial persona as for his literary oeuvre. Even as a young man, well before America-at-large had caught up with his generous self-assessment, Norman Mailer did not suffer fools gladly—and if you were a writer, and he considered you of lesser pedigree (which was almost everyone, to his mind), you were most surely a fool. Ever the stylistic innovator, Mailer took lots of risks in his writing, inevitably producing some works that were denounced as self-indulgent and waaaay overdone; Ancient Evenings comes to mind. He also drew criticism from journalistic purists for his early advocacy of the school of nonfiction story-telling that came to be known as "faction": a blend of overarching fact and invented detail wherein Mailer was able, for example, to place himself inside the heads of main characters he had never met or even interviewed; this enabled him to flesh out his narratives with so-called "interior monologue."

But at his best, when everything worked, there was simply no one better. Or even close, in my humble opinion.

Though Mailer is perhaps most famous for such early works as The Naked and the Dead and The Armies of the Night, I for one will always marvel at his deft and lyrical handling of the Gary Gilmore case, published as The Executioner's Song. The genius of the way Mailer wove a seamless narrative out of multiple, often discordant points of view, revealing the contradictions and ambiguities in human nature by simply letting the individual stories tell themselves (that is, without the heavy-handed narration that so many writers fall back on)... I'd never read anything quite like it before. I'd be surprised if I ever do again.

Not a few of those of my generation who were compelled to commit ourselves to this crazy enterprise called writing have Norman Mailer to thank. Or maybe blame is the better word. Whatever the case, he was an idol among idols, the Ted Williams of writing (and just as fiery and hard to get along with, by all accounts). It's a cliche, of course—one that Mailer would scorn as such—but he will be missed.


Cal said...

I am reading a biography of Ralph Ellison and just passed a few pages where the author talks about Mailer and his opinion of Ellison. He felt that Ellison was basically "a hateful writer" and his writings degenerated into a "murderously depressed clown". The author noted the irony in that Mailer was arrested for stabbing his wife the next year.

So I see your point about Mailer's opinion of other writers.

Steve Salerno said...

Hey, there's no shortage of cynical opinions on Mailer--as writer or man. Among other things, it is doubtful that a more open and angry misogynist ever achieved cultural eminence in my generation (with the possible exception of poet Charles Bukowski, but Bukowski never really "went mainstream"). And it was probably only the fact that Mailer had already won great fame and fortune by the time the women's movement kicked into high gear that allowed him to be "grandfathered" into literary acceptance. His highly un-PC feelings in many areas simply would not be tolerated, were he coming to the fore today.

And there are those--also not a few--who think even Mailer's signature books are majorly overrated.

I just felt that, at the end of the day, there were times when he "did it better than anyone else."

RevRon's Rants said...

Ironically, I found my greatest inspiration in two wholly different writers: Tolkien and Richard Brautigan. Tolkien's imagery was so rich and complex, I could literally taste and smell the world he created. And Brautigan's economy of prose was phenomenal to me, as he could build an image in the reader's mind with fewer words than I would have thought possible.

While Tolkien lived a long and full life, his literary legacy assured, Brautigan's was a different matter. He became a bestselling author by fluke. His first published novel, "Trout Fishing In America," was ordered by every sporting goods chain and outdoors organization in the country, yet as it turns out, had absolutely nothing to do with the sport of trout fishing.

His subsequent fame was limited to those who would embrace chronicles of the San Francisco lifestyle of the '60s, and none of his subsequent writings achieved the sales levels of Trout Fishing. He ultimately committed suicide some years ago, unable to accept the fact that he had faded from readers' consciousness (and appetites).

I still find myself comparing my own writings to the sumptuous buffet of Tolkien's and the razor-sharp strokes of Brautigan's. That I always come up short - in both areas - is as much a tribute to their genius as an acknowledgment of my own limitations (not to mention, a prod to help me at least try to overcome those limitations).