MAILER: His Life and Times. By Peter Manso. Simon and Schuster. 718 pp. $19.95.
WHAT COULD be left to disclose about Norman Mailer's wants, winnings, dares, disasters, cunning, mission, folly, craft, violence, generosity and art not previously and regularly disclosed by Norman Mailer? If Mailer's appetite for the variety of American experience is insatiable, has America not filled its belly with Mailer?
As long ago as the '50s, in Advertisements for Myself -- and repeatedly in his journalistic embraces of such high-octane personages as presidential candidates, prizefighters, astronauts, killers and poets -- Mailer has shrewdly gauged the peril of overstaying one's welcome as a celebrity (see The Armies of the Night), and just as recklessly ignored (see The Armies of the Night) the imperatives of his own senses.
Whatever the consequences on Mailer's self-cultivated legend of Peter Manso's biography by compilation (a collage of interviews with 150 friends, ex-friends and acquaintances), the object of this relentlessly thorough exegesis holds himself at a becomingly novel distance from its process of judgment. If he has let himself be interviewed about the phenomenon Norman Mailer, his conclusions are moderate, even tentative, as though at last he has decided to leave some apprehensions to others, as though he might have calmed himself some, as though he were no longer willing to devote himself to showoff nonsense.
To understand why Mailer would in any way collaborate with someone else's spin on the accumulated choices and mischances that have in sum made Mailer's self, his bread and wine as an artist, listen to him speak in the final few pages of this tome: " . . . I'm a little rueful that I'm not as competitive as I used to be. But you have to ebb a bit as you get older. What I'm concerned with now is how many books I have left to write. It's no longer a question of Is one the champ? I'm a writer like other writers, either better or less good than I think I am. But in the meantime I have a life to work at. And how do I want to lead that life in the time remaining to me? In other words, no more stunts."
Pardon the reservations of a cynic, but I've read and written about many Norman Mailers, and while this elder statesman is among the more attractive of his populous tribe, of a piece with the reflective and deliberate craftsman recently interviewed by John Leonard on televison, there is a core fact about Norman Mailer once (and brilliantly) declared by Norman Mailer, almost 30 years ago:
"To write about myself is to send my style through a circus of variations and postures, a fireworks of virtuosity designed to achieve . . . I do not even know what. Leave it that I become an actor, a quick-change artist, as if I believe I can trap the Prince of Truth in the act of switching a style" ("First Advertisement for Myself").
Mailer has always been justly preoccupied with his voice, whatever its imperfect dialects and shifty properties, first-person singular or third-person royal. When he has not been arm wrestling or butting heads with fellow bullies, or fighting in the street with some gatecrasher at his drunken brawl of a party, or stabbing his second wife, or courting and divorcing three more, or making himself foolish at this press conference or on that TV talk show, or running for mayor, or translating his 50th birthday 12 years ago into an incomprehensible monologue (at the Four Seasons, of course, $50 admission ticket, of course) about the CIA, or squandering time, money and friends on the idiotic movie Maidstone, or . . . you know . . . When he has not been horsing around, he has been writing, wonderful stuff mostly, always audacious, usually swinging for he fences. Bless him.
IF IT HAS BEEN his credo that upon the anvil of personality (the sum of enactments and ruminations) style is beaten into shape, style for Mailer has until recently been the sounds of his voices. Not until The Executioner's Song, the first section of which is first among my own Mailer favorites, has he been certain enough of the power, perhaps even the existence, of his own voice to let another speak within his hearing, to imagine a voice not his own, to create the sound of someone else speaking, thinking, being.
His collaboration with Peter Manso's enterprise is another instance of a writer secure in his gift easing his grip on it, listening, watching others watch him. In form this biography by the man who interviewed New York Mayor Edward Koch (infamously) for Playboy owes everything to the precedent of Jean Stein's biography by interview, Edie: An American Biography (1982). Stein's editor and collaborator on that project was George Plimpton, who is interviewed for this book, who is currently at work on a similar life of Truman Capote.
Such a biography, in which the interviewer and his questions disappear, and the responses to those questions are arranged in categorical mosaics, is an exercise in point of view. Many voices, many vantages, many partialities contribute to (and contend for) the truth of Mailer's experience at Harvard, for example, or as a soldier, friend, political partisan, professional writer. The disappearing interviewer, willing to let run the quirky cadences of strangers talking, has been brought to full flower by Studs Terkel, the spiritual father of these valuable assemblies by Stein, Plimpton and Manso.
So what Norman Mailer does this chorus conspire to describe? A nice Jewish boy with notably sweet manners at Harvard, which limited Jews in the 1940s to about 10 percent of its students and put them in rooms with other Jews freshman year. A young man probably self-described in The Naked and the Dead as enduring "his painful desire to please people." A would-be aeronautical engineer converted at Harvard to literature ("There's a navigator in us -- I really do believe that -- and I think this navigator knew I wanted to be a writer and had an absolute sense of what was good for me and what wasn't"), whose great success with his first novel did much to dislocate its author.
Mailer makes much in his remarks here as elsewhere of that "navigator at the center of my unconscious" whose bearings he trusts. God knows he has led himself again and again off course, and perhaps never more crucially, more consequentially, than in his flirtations with outlaws and their violent acts. The nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn and Harvard has written elsewhere of his terror of niceness, his certainty that the desperado has a firmer grip on America's heart than the sheriff. It there is a hell, if Mailer burns there, it won't be for for his self-contradictions of vision, for being what he calls in Armies of the Night a "figure of monumental disproportions." There is probably no way to explain or forgive the aftermath of the Jack Henry Abbott catastrophe. Not that Mailer begs anyone's forgiveness, or that innocent blood is on his hands, but why didn't Gary Gilmore's example prepare Mailer for Abbott, and educate the moral primitive who found violence so sexy in "The White Negro," and An American Dream.
Then was then; now is now. Now there's this assembly of witnesses, testifying to Norman Mailer's courage, generosity, warmth, curiosity, honesty and loyalty. It would be wrong to underestimate the value of this testimony. Many among these 150 have been angry at Mailer, have felt themselves the victims of small (and larger) betrayals, have despised his courtship with extreme people who commit extreme acts that draw blood. But no one can read this account -- page upon page of recollections by people famous and unknown, grave literary personages and trivial sycophants and social climbers, beings up the greasy pole and ignorant of its existence -- without noting Mailer's bedrock decency, a steadfast commitment to his friends and his calling that transcends calculation, or any ambition, including the ambition to be good, or to be loved. Call the collective effect love: for Mailer, and if not for Mailer for what he has tried, and if not for what he has tried for what he has made others wish to try.