It is the gamble, literally, of a lifetime. Norman Mailer, variously condemned as the berserker-savant of American letters or esteemed as the most insightful oracle of contemporary culture, has just confounded both camps by staking his literary career on "my most ambitious work"--a titanic novel set in Egypt in the 13th century B.C.

Already it has split the critics into outspoken factions, and promises to transform Mailer's volatile reputation permanently. And it has transfigured the portly eminence himself. Those who know Mailer only as the brawling iconoclast of the gab-show circuit would scarcely recognize this tranquil figure, tweeded and khakied, sitting in his publisher's Manhattan office with the bone-deep calm of a man reborn. Or, perhaps, between lives.

"Those of us who don't have a firm notion of our identity--and few do--see our identity as sort of crystallizing out," he says, setting a bent index finger in the cleft between his lip and chin, pale blue eyes staring hard at the desktop. "I felt as if all these crystals that I'd carefully accumulated that told me my identity was this and this and this were slowly being used up in writing this book. So that by the time I finished it, I almost felt as if I didn't know any longer who I was and I didn't much care. It was a true consumption of one's identity, maybe exorcizing an identity that was untenable--I don't know."

Precisely the problem of Menenhetet, the protagonist and principal narrator of "Ancient Evenings," whose irascible ghost we first encounter in its tomb. He has been reincarnated three times ("I'm a great believer in karma," Mailer says. "I do believe that we're not here just one time") and the vast and complex chronicle follows his 180-year history. In the first life he is a peasant warrior who wins the favor of the Pharaoh by outstripping his peers in a chariot race; next a defiled high priest whose occult experiments (e.g., noshing on bat dung) risk sacrilege. The third time around he is a brothel-keeper who becomes vastly rich by running a papyrus factory; and at last he becomes a venerable, if tainted, court figure sick with secret shame and abhorring his own Pharaonic ambitions.

Intriguingly congruent to the shape of Mailer's own life: A young man comes out of Brooklyn to lead the literary pack with "The Naked and the Dead" (thus earning a shot at King Hemingway's crown). In the '60s he becomes a pot-powered metaphysical explorer, the vicar of hip, plumbing the souls of psychopaths and the primordial murks of sexual taboo ("The Presidential Papers," "An American Dream," "Cannibals and Christians") and auguring the spiritual meaning of national events ("The Armies of the Night," "Miami and the Siege of Chicago"). In the '70s, beset by the mercenary demands of alimony and child-support, he becomes a veritable manuscript factory ("Marilyn," "Of Women and Their Elegance") before subsiding in the '80s into a reluctantly placid party-going lionhood.

So by killing Menenhetet, might one thereby purge the demons of so many former selves? Mailer's eyebrows sink into a frown--"I'm just looking uneasy because you might be right"--and his right hand rises, curls and scuffs at the top of his head, his habitual simian gesture of concentration.

"The extraordinary business for me in relation to Menenhetet is that all the while I was writing the book, I did not think of that man as having anything to do with myself. And I still don't think he has much to do with me--he's much bolder, stronger and athletic on the one hand, and on the other much more ugly and unscrupulous than I ever saw myself as being.

"But by the time the book was done, I did have to say to myself, 'My God, there's more similarity there than met my eye in the beginning.' That's an odd experience, almost spooky, to start writing about someone who's a stranger and by the end of the book to realize you've been looking into some sort of clouded mirror."

Which raises the ego-investment ante, already plenty high since it's Judgment Day in the Press. The first newspaper reviews have appeared the day before, including a front-page crucifixion in The New York Times Book Review. And this morning Time and Newsweek have just arrived at the Little, Brown offices above the litter-blown grime of 32nd Street. So has Mailer, in his trademark rolling swagger, somewhere between a lope and a waddle. With a short smile and shorter greeting, he scoops up the magazines and shuts himself in an adjoining room.

Comprehend the tension: Mailer calls the new novel the "most audacious" of the two dozen books he has written between "The Naked and the Dead" and last year's "Pieces and Pontifications." The 709 pages got a $1-million advance and took 10 years to write between nonfiction projects. Now at 60 he says flatly, "if it's no good, I'm no good."

Some critics are happy to agree. Harper's calls it as a "cosmic bummer." The Times, though growing dewy over Mailer's richly sensual rendition of Egyptian mythology, says: "It is, speaking bluntly, a disaster" whose characters are "ludicrous blends of Mel Brooks and the Marquis de Sade." And Time, with murderous deadpan, finds it "an artifact of evident craftsmanship and utterly invisible significance."

Even the positive opinions bristle with caveats. Newsweek says, "Stupefying the book may be, but it's also impressive, a book to remind us that even in his most obsessive wallowing Mailer remains the most talented writer we have just now." The Washington Post finds it "fascinating and evocative, but also clumsily buttressed with unleavened Egyptology and endless digressions." And The New York Review of Books calls it Mailer's "weirdest text" before praising the "spiritual power" and "relevance to current reality in America that actually surpasses that of Mailer's largest previous achievement, 'The Executioner's Song.' "

Woe to that writer whose best reviews speak of stupefaction, weirdness and wallowing. Yet when Mailer emerges at last, he is genial as a small-town mayor on the Fourth of July. "Pretty good, pretty good," he says. "Reading reviews is like drinking black coffee--it's a rush." He holsters his small, plump hands in his sport-coat pockets, the thumbs waggling out contentedly, the bow of the elbows accentuating his brawny, sweater-swaddled gut. And he grins.

Grins? No bellicose belly-fire tantrum from the fabled literary pug? No threat of nose-mangling revenge? Mailer eases into a desk chair. "Look, if a book is rich enough," he says, "it really shouldn't be unanimously well-received." And besides, "nothing gets me that angry any more."

Nearly eerie, this resurrectory calm. No sign now of the booze-sodden maniac who stabbed his wife in 1960; of the dilettante pol who ran a woozy and doomed campaign for mayor of New York in 1969 and tried to found a citizens' counter-CIA group in the '70s; the macho brawler who during the filming of one of his three movies bit Rip Torn's ear, and attacked Gore Vidal at an uber-caste party in New York; the supporter of Jack Henry Abbott (convicted of murder, 1982) and Richard Stratton (drug conspiracy, 1983).

And gone, too, the arrogant vanity of the public persona he has carried for a quarter century since he first decided to fabricate an alternate self. "There's a marvelous irony that's in the very warp and woof of such a scheme. When I wrote 'Advertisements,' I realized at that point that one could literally forge one's career by the idea you gave people of yourself." That is, you impersonate "the person you'd like to be and have some reasonable chance of becoming in a couple of years, and in that sense you are lifting yourself by your bootstraps and accelerating your career. And it was an unbelievably delicate and demanding game--not just a gimmick or gambit--but as profound a game as a criminal lawyer plays by becoming one, because he cuts himself off forever, perhaps, from any clear notion of what morality might be."

In public, Mailer usually speaks in halting, growling bursts like a small man trying to get into a tall conversation. Today it's a measured baritone. He rests both forearms on the desktop and punctuates his sentences by popping his palms up and down like flippers.

"But the negative side is that you then end up with this incredible dinosaur's tail of legend, and it's false legend--it never worked even on the day it was created. And 20 years later, you're using your best efforts to drag the tail around." He has also found that "notoriety never helps an author," especially now that "buying a hardcover book has become nearly a sacramental act" and readers will only pay today's prices "if they respect you."

And respect is crucial, since "I've taken more risks with the Egyptian novel than any book I've ever written." Not that it began that way 10 years ago. "I wanted to work with some notion of reincarnation. I'd been influenced by the idea of 'The Last of the Just' by Andre' Schwarz-Bart, and I wanted to have a chapter in Egypt, one in Greece, a chapter in Rome and whip through the Middle Ages and bring it right up to the present." This, however, was "blissful ignorance, lack of awareness of the way my mind works, because I can't move forward until I've satisfied the questions that I'm dealing with at the present moment." Once he started the research, "I never got out of 'The Book of the Dead.' I started writing about a burial and I just got drawn into Egypt." He spent a few days in Cairo in 1975, but got out fast. Experience was not at issue; nor were the two substantial liberties he took with Egyptian culture: the notions of telepathy and reincarnation. "When you have a perception about a subject that others don't, it can carry you all sorts of places. And if you're ignorant about much of the subject, that's good, because you have all the pleasures and virtues of innocence as you go into it."

There were hazards in the setting ("I kept saying, 'Well, I don't know what this has to do with the issues of the day' ") and the treatment, since "one of the preoccupations of the book--which may not be very interesting because we live in a more and more egalitarian age--is the psychology of the very rich." Ditto for the style: "It's a hypnotic style, an incantatory style. And at its worst, out of context, it's a damn silly style." Indeed. Even readers mesmerized by the archaic cadence, epic similes and King Jamesian capitals ("Oh You Who live in the night, yet shine upon us in the day; Who are wise as the earth and as the river . . .") may still boggle at some of the dialogue:

"Do not stand unmoving, my son," said my father.

"Yes," said the Pharaoh , "you had better kiss My foot."

"You get to pride yourself on your nerve after while," Mailer says, but there'd be times when I'd stop and look up and think, 'Oh boy, what they're gonna do with a sentence like this!' "

Yet all such perils pale in comparison to the book's whopping lubricity. The plethora of sexual transactions--hetero- and homo-; solo, in pairs and toute ensemble--become metaphors for modes of domination. Especially anal intercourse, and in particular the Pharaoh's rape of Menenhetet in his first life. Throughout his subsequent incarnations, Menenhetet wrestles with the psychic legacy of that act, and "insofar as the book has a story," Mailer says, "that's the story." And all of it expressed with such a relentless anality and excremental obsession, with such a nasal emphasis on stenches ("Well, I'm very nearsighted and too vain to wear glasses"), that Egypt soon seems a viscid sump and life itself a stew of ordure.

The critics have not failed to notice. But so far, says Mailer, "they've been relatively easy on it. They could have been a lot worse." It's hard to imagine. Time declares the sex "droning. The penile principle predominates . . . Indiscriminate rutting is a sign of power, sodomy the proof of triumph." And Newsweek finds evidence of "pandemic buggery. (The Nile itself is likened to the cleft between two buttocks; a chariot wheel to 'a strange anus.')"

Such a prolonged preoccupation suggests a major theme. But Mailer's explanations are disappointingly literal. "I felt is was impossible to understand Egypt without taking into account one of its fundamentals, which is s---. There's never been a society that bore a closer relation to it. It's absolutely crucial to the book. Because I'm dealing with power and godhead and death and rebirth and magic and curses, and to me, s--- is one of those elements."

Uh, sure. But hasn't the excremental epiphany, both sexual and digestive, been sufficiently--perhaps exhaustively--explored in his work before? The use of sodomy as an emblem for sadistic domination appears in one of his earliest stories ("The Time of Her Time") as well as the unforgettable encounter with Ruta in "An American Dream." So what's new? As it happens, nothing: "It's one of the things that's never talked about. I've always seen myself as a wicked writer--not an evil one, but a wicked writer. So I do love raising the ante."

He raises a chicken-salad sandwich and pauses to chomp vigorously, biting down from the top. "Some writers will dare anything if they think they have something to say that no one has ever said before. And the topic is so forbidden that there's everything to say about it. And so I thought, 'All right, I'm going to take a chance.' "

As for the fecal theme, as early as 20 years ago in "The Presidential Papers" Mailer was asking us to consult our bowels for intimations of our spiritual condition. The idea never really caught on, and by the mid-'60s, he expanded the notion of divination by stool into a systematic analysis titled "The Metaphysics of the Belly," which argued that we eliminate not only wastes that are inferior to us, but those things which are too fine for our flawed characters to absorb. And yet here's old Menenhetet urging precisely the same two-decade-old thesis on the Pharaoh. Did we need to hear it again? Mailer's answer: Almost no one read the earlier works.

But if there is ample gratuitous squalor, there is also a genuine redemptive urgency. As Harold Bloom says in TNYRB, "Mailer is desperately trying to save our souls as D.H. Lawrence tried to do in 'The Plumed Serpent' . . . to make his serious readers into religious vitalists." Mailer not only plunges his characters into the rankest funk of their secret desires, but elevates them to embody the great Egyptian myths (vividly retold in the book's first 100 pages) and gives them a cosmos in which every action, every setting, glimmers with spiritual portent. In acknowledgment of which The New Republic calls the book "a new and permanent contribution to the possibilities of fiction."

"This is one of the few books I know," Mailer says, "that treats magic with real respect. See, magic bears the same relation to the Egyptians that technology does to us. One of the things I wanted to shock and startle the reader with is: Look what a comprehensive world view magic gives you. When it works, it's marvelous and it fortifies their view of the universe. When it doesn't work, it's that something went wrong with the process. It's never the fundamental belief that's shaken." Similarly, "our belief in science is, if not tragically misplaced, certainly megalomaniacal." In fact, "it could be said by future generations, if there are any, that we're much sillier than the Egyptians," because we use technology "to slowly but systemically deaden and debase our way of life. Each year there's more real poverty in the synapses than there was the year before." The chief (and predictable) offender: television.

"I feel as if we've all gone completely in the wrong direction. When God first conceived the world, I don't think it was His or Her notion--that much effect the women's movement has had on me!--that we would have television. I don't think all those worlds came out of the cosmos in order to have people sitting around like sheep looking at a livid luminescent screen."

But this animism he finds so appealing in the Egyptians--has he experienced it himself? "Well, let's say I find it philosophically congenial. For instance, listen to this--are you ready?" And he rips a piece out of the sandwich bag with a noisy flourish. "Now the Egyptians would doubtless have said that sound is what the god of this bag uttered when wounded. And that makes absolutely as much sense to me as some incredibly difficult and incomprehensible discussion on the collision of sine waves. I believe there are all sorts of forces in the universe, some more tangible than others, nearly all of them invisible, that sort of aid us or f--- us up. One of the ways you can spot that is that you can be engaged in something that you're dead serious about. It can turn out badly or well, but you feel considerably more or less elation or despondency than you should. One knows instinctively that there were bad sprits or good ones around affecting the result. One of the rarest emotions one can have is to feel an emotion commensurate with the effort."

No doubt: With various obligations to five ex-wives and eight children--as well as his current spouse, painter and ex-model Norris Church, 34, and their 4-year-old son John Buffalo--Mailer must earn well over $300,000 a year just to break even. And even with advances at $1 million each for his next three novels, with substantial foreign sales, lectures and royalties from previous books, he says, "I'm still not out of the woods. At the moment I have to find some way to pay my income tax, and I don't know how to do it at this point." The next novel (set in a space ship) is due this fall, and he wants to continue writing fiction indefinitely thereafter. "Of course, I'm not the master of my fate. If the debts pile up," he knows he can always stoke the family coffers with some fast nonfiction. But that would simply slow the arrival of the big fiction works--one set in the future, the other a present-era volume titled "Of Modern Times."

But forget about the race for The Great American Novel. "I won't turn on the fact that I was very competitive for years, because it keeps you working. It's a lively instinct if it doesn't poison you. And I'm a little rueful that I'm not as competitive as I used to be. But you just sort of 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 or isn't one?"

Now, he feels, "I'm a writer like other writers, either better or less good than I think I am," and posterity will judge. "But in the meantime, I have a life to conclude and work at. And how do I want to lead that life in the time remaining to me. In other words, no more stunts." If that sounds needlessly funereal for a man of 60, "well, you end as a writer 10, 20 or 30 years before your death. And that's something to give you pause. There aren't that many authors who have written marvelous books after 70, are there?" The question begins as rhetorical but ends in earnest, the quiet voice suddenly burred.

"I figure I've got about 10 years left. If I'm saving something tremendous, I better get started on it."