Appropriately sprawling biography of the larger-than-life writer, brawler, provocateur and bon vivant.
Norman Mailer (1923–2007), writes archivist and authorized biographer Lennon, grew up in a reasonably happy family, with a strong mother and dapper father, who, as Mailer wrote, “had the gift of speaking to each woman as if she was the most important woman he’d ever spoken to.” Mailer himself was fairly obsessed with women, though his quest was often thwarted—as he recalled, particularly at Harvard, where he served something of an apprenticeship. Mailer came into adulthood with a noticeable chip on his shoulder and some well-aired grievances, and he kept the pattern up throughout a long and productive life. As Advertisements for Myself (1959) proclaimed, for instance, he maintained running feuds and rivalries with all manner of writers—and, as Lennon reveals, even took Ernest Hemingway by the horns, occasioning an apology from Papa some years later. He also battled editors and critics from the start, though Hemingway helpfully instructed on the matter of reviews, “Try for Christ sake not to worry about it so much. All that is poison.” Lennon ably reveals the always-contentious Mailer but also a man who could be generous and very smart. Lennon is also a shrewd literary critic, commenting on the origins and fortunes of Mailer’s works, notably his study of Marilyn Monroe, which laid bare “his narcissism, born of early spectacular success.” Mailer possessed an outsized ego well before then, of course, but the point remains: Though he seems to be little read now, Mailer was of central importance in postwar American writing, as he would have been glad to tell you.
Detailed and anecdotal without being gossipy (a yarn concerning a nicotine-addicted cat notwithstanding) and a must-read for students and admirers of Mailer’s work.