More than 50 years after he first staked his claim to the title of Great American Novelist, Mailer surveys the literary landscape—and the competition.
Pasting together “pieces I have written and extracts from interviews I have given,” Mailer hands out a few trophies (and some jabs) to surviving contemporaries Bellow, Updike, and Roth, as well as giants such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. He also considers the other Tom Wolfe, bops Young Turk Jonathan Franzen, and even skips about the ring with Toni Morrison. Fans following Mailer’s career since The Naked and the Dead (1948) will find many familiar pages, especially those chronicling the young contender’s liverish agonies with The Deer Park (1955), and yet the whole impresses mightily—more so than might A Treasury of Great Literary Comments by Updike, Bellow, or Roth. The mind-altering moment here for younger writers comes when Mailer finds his own voice at last in Advertisements for Myself (1959), the most infectious piece of prose to liberate American authors in the past half-century. At that point, he shifts from seeking the perfect word or nuance to the longer rhythms of double-bed sentences built for the Maileresque hurly-burly of sex, philosophy, and metaphor. He is particularly stimulating on questions of craft: style, first person versus third person, real life versus plot life, instinct and influence, stamina. He praises E.L. Doctorow’s sublime chapter in Ragtime showing J. P. Morgan trying to suck Henry Ford into an occult group of world-rulers. “The fact that it obviously never took place,” Mailer observes, “made it more delicious.” In a longer passage he takes apart Bellow’s Herzog, finding the protagonist an unendurably boring, leaden-footed, “unoriginal man.” Nonetheless, he concludes, “the novel succeeds. There is its mystery. One reads it with compassion. With rare compassion.” Indeed he does, and compassion was a quality rarely associated with the young Norman Mailer. Pub date coincides with his 80th birthday: Can it be that he’s grown up?
Mailer’s richest thoughts on writing since the shock of Advertisements for Myself.