Norman Mailer, the pugnacious two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who jabbed and bobbed his way through an extraordinary career as one of the most original and audacious voices in postwar American letters, died yesterday. He was 84.
Beset by serious health problems that required heart bypass surgery in 2005 and hospitalizations for lung problems this fall, Mailer died of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said his literary executor, J. Michael Lennon.
Mailer, called "a great and obsessed stylist" by Joan Didion, wrote nearly 50 books that zigzagged among genres, including fiction, biography, history, essays and highly personal journalism. He was a grand provocateur with an unapologetically macho sensibility who, in acts on and off the page, reaped more glory, failure and notoriety than any other major writer of his generation.
In his work he grappled with the salient events and personalities of his time, whether writing about the Cold War and Vietnam War protests or iconic figures such as Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali.
His fiction revealed the scale of his aspirations. After rocketing to the top of the literary heap at 25 with his semi-autobiographical World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), he wrote a so-called "autobiography" of Jesus (The Gospel According to the Son) and a saga that swept across two centuries of Egyptian history (Ancient Evenings). His last novel, The Castle in the Forest, published this year, imagines Adolf Hitler as a boy and is narrated by a devil.
Although novelist was the identity Mailer most cherished, it was not his most celebrated role. He "has never been able to write convincing dialogue, a fact that has seriously limited him," Tom Wolfe once wrote. Of Mailer's four dozen books, only 10 were novels in the traditional sense, and the bad reviews outweighed the good.
Wolfe and other critics found more to admire in Mailer's command of the hybrid genre that became known as New Journalism, the novelistic rendering of factual stories. The Armies of the Night (1968), about the 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon, and The Executioner's Song (1979), about Utah double-murderer Gary Gilmore, proved Mailer the master of this form, pioneered by Truman Capote, that blurred the lines between literature and reportage. The Pulitzer committee honored the former for nonfiction and the latter for fiction, validating the protean nature of Mailer's talent.
Critics thought it notable that there was no Mailer character in The Executioner's Song. It was the exception in an extensive body of nonfiction work in which Mailer featured himself as the often buffoonish participant-observer. In The Armies of the Night, which also won a National Book Award, the author was ever present as the persona variously called "Mailer," "the Beast," "the Ruminant" and "the General." He called himself "Aquarius" in Of a Fire on the Moon, "the Prisoner" in The Prisoner of Sex and "the reporter" in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Sometimes, as in The Fight, a small classic about the 1974 bout pitting Ali against George Foreman, he was simply "Norman."
"For a heady period, no major public event in U.S. life seemed quite complete until Mailer had observed himself observing it," Paul Gray wrote in Time magazine in 1983.
The hubris that enabled such bold work also fueled the extra-literary exploits that burnished Mailer's unruly image.
He divorced five wives and, in 1960, stabbed one. In the 1970s, at the height of the women's movement, he was reviled by feminists, in part because of the stabbing, but also because of impolitic characterizations of women as "low, sloppy beasts" who were made to bear children. In 1981 he sponsored the parole of Jack Henry Abbott, a convict with literary ambitions, an experience that turned tragic when Abbott killed a man six weeks after his release.
Mailer was notorious for tussling with critics. Backstage at The Dick Cavett Show in the early 1970s, he head-butted Gore Vidal, who had written that Mailer's violent streak put him in the same league as mass murderer Charles Manson. (After the head-butting, Vidal quipped, "Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.") Mailer's tough-guy approach was also reflected in a proposal offered during his quixotic 1969 run for New York mayor to ease urban tensions with armored jousts in Central Park. His unpredictable behavior prevented Mailer from being "filed away in any known literary category," critic Morris Dickstein said in 2006.
Mailer explained himself this way:
"I shared with [Ernest Hemingway] the notion, arrived at slowly in my case, that even if one dulled one's talent in the punishment of becoming a man, it was more important to be a man than a very good writer, that probably I could not become a very good writer unless I learned first how to keep my nerve."
By all accounts, he never wrote the great American novel. But Mailer, according to Yale scholar and critic Harold Bloom, belongs in the pantheon of literature's giants.
"He may be remembered more as prose prophet than as a novelist," Bloom wrote some years ago, "more as Carlyle than as Hemingway. There are worse literary fates. Carlyle, long neglected, doubtless will return. Mailer, now celebrated, doubtless will vanish into neglect, and yet always will return, as a historian of the moral consciousness of his era, and as the representative writer of his generation."
Elaine Woo writes for the Los Angeles Times.