Feature

Book of the week: Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon

Norman Mailer liked to say that both a saint and a psychopath lived inside him, and maybe they did.

(Simon & Schuster, $40)

“This great wallop of a book” befits its subject, said David Kirby in The Washington Post. Norman Mailer lived at a time when the best writers were larger-than-life figures, and, with his appetites for conflict, sexual adventure, and the big story, this brash New Yorker “embodied his era like no other.” Starting with 1948’s The Naked and the Dead, a partially autobiographical novel about World War II’s Pacific theater, Mailer produced at least one best-selling book for seven consecutive decades. But his ego and machismo frequently upstaged his work. He loved to pick fights, whether taunting feminists by calling rape “good for a man’s soul” or head-butting Gore Vidal just before a joint TV interview. The author of this 900-page tome was a friend of Mailer’s, but he “gives flesh to Mailer’s frenetic ubiquity” without ducking the controversies.

“The title A Double Life is a curious one,” given that Mailer’s private affairs were so public, said Graydon Carter in The New York Times. But Mailer liked to say that both a saint and a psychopath lived inside him, and maybe they did. By 1960, when he stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife, nearly killing her, he enjoyed more renown for his aggression and libido than for his writing. Author J. Michael Lennon, who serves as Mailer’s executor, tries to put as much focus on the work as on the scandals, said Alan Cheuse in NPR.org. Alas, “he is better at biography than criticism.” Most readers will “already be convinced of Mailer’s powers and his importance,” but Lennon’s boosterism is “not always genuinely convincing.”

Reading a biography by such a staunch Mailer advocate can be frustrating, said Blake Bailey in The Wall Street Journal. Lennon provides dutiful summaries of “every book, every major review, and even the most vapid specimens of Mailer’s magazine work.” We learn, for example, that his interview of Madonna from 1994 “holds interest, but never soars.” Worse, Lennon’s partisanship inspires him to paint media critics as the bad guys when in 1981 they savaged Mailer for having won the freedom of a murderer who almost immediately killed again. But Lennon’s fondness for Mailer does allow us a more rounded portrait. Mailer almost always tried to make amends for bad behavior, for instance. “And he did manage, after all, to write some very good books.”

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