Forget pepper spray and police dogs: If you’re in the market for a home defense system, you could do worse than pick up a copy of J. Michael Lennon’s king-sized biography of Norman Mailer. One whack with this should lay any intruder out cold. It’s what old-timers in the publishing industry called a “doorstop” or a “widow-maker,” though given Mailer’s treatment of his six wives, we might call it a widowermaker.
Not that he actually killed any of them, but he came close when he stuck a penknife into Adele Morales Mailer in 1960, missing her heart by a fraction of an inch. He led his spouses, girlfriends and numerous one-night stands on a merry chase, and while he drove feminists crazy with rage, the majority of his romantic conquests seemed to take an oh-that-Norman attitude and look back at him with a sort of exasperated affection. Even Adele told police and doctors that she had sustained her wounds by falling on broken glass and, after the truth emerged, declined to press charges.
As Mailer’s friend from 1972 till the novelist’s death in 2007, Lennon was authorized by Mailer to write this biography and given unprecedented access to unpublished letters and papers. Thus he says with authority that Mailer’s “sixty years of writing can be seen as an untrammeled examination of all things sexual . . . from the funky odors of lovemaking to the inalienable joys of marriage and children, from promiscuity and free love to abortion, masturbation, and orgies.” So canine an interest in sexuality called for a certain amount of, um, field work, and Mailer never wearied of the task, even though Lennon seems to: After summarizing a number of his subject’s liaisons, he notes, “There were other affairs, but these were the most important.”
Mailer’s sexual adventuring is so epic that one loses a sense of scale. His sixth and last wife, Norris Church, apparently grew tired of counting (or caring), as well. In her memoir, she writes, “He said he had been totally true to me, except for one or two tiny one-night stands with old girlfriends when he was on lecture tours.”
As much as Mailer loved “the heat of a luxurious bed,” to quote Shakespeare, he also loved writing great, thick, square books — more than two dozen — as well as reams of journalistic pieces. His best-known novel is his first, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948); even Gore Vidal, whose public spats with Mailer would boost the profiles of both writers, asserted that every previous conflict had its big novel, and that Mailer had written the one for World War II.
Twenty years later, Mailer starred in his own “nonfiction novel” about the October 1967 Vietnam protest march on the Pentagon, “The Armies of the Night” (1968), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In his review, the always astute Alfred Kazin compared Mailer to “the best American writers of the 19th century [who] talked about themselves all the time — but, in the Romantic American line, saw the self as the prime condition of democracy.” Lennon says that “the country was undergoing profound change” in the mid-60s and that, for a period of roughly 10 years, Mailer was “its chief chronicler and interpreter.”
Mailer’s sex life and writing were intimately related, as any advance or royalty check he received went out immediately for mortgages, alimony, child care and tuition; at one point, six of his children were in college. The night he met Church, he told her he was the sole support for 14 people. Since his obligations swallowed up every nickel that came his way, he was constantly in arrears with the IRS, which meant more articles, books, speaking engagements. Along the way, he made movies, produced plays and, in 1969, ran for the Democratic mayoral nomination in New York City, getting 5 percent of the vote.
Lennon brings Mailer thoroughly alive in this great wallop of a book. His is the reporter’s eye, not the judge’s, and he captures the entirety of a man who embodied his era like no other. It was a day when, in place of reality shows, writers like Mailer and Vidal debated each other on television, and somber, white-haired reporters described a war fought by soldiers carrying rifles and hand grenades while, at home, police sprayed demonstrators with fire hoses. These days, when Predator drones are the weapon of choice and the battle for equal rights has moved largely from the streets to the courtroom, it helps to be reminded how different public life was just a few years ago. Lennon gives flesh to Mailer’s frenetic ubiquity in a way that puts readers on the scene, lets us hear the chants of the protesters and smell the tear gas.
Describing himself in a letter to Church, Mailer noted that he had two sides: the one that needed to be in love and the one that needed constant change. Out of that friction came babies, bills and books — lots of them. The best of his writing has much to say to a contemporary audience, at least in the opinion of his publisher, Random House, which released a collection of Mailer’s essays Tuesday and will reissue his backlist over the next two years.
This is the same Norman Mailer who began a 1972 talk at Berkeley by asking the feminists in the audience to hiss, and when they did, said, “Obedient little b------.” He was hard to like as a person (unless you were one of his countless lovers, apparently), but he wrote “blustering, bellicose prose,” according to his critical nemesis Michiko Kakutani, who lambasted his books for years but tossed that bouquet after his death in 2007.
In an episode that captures perfectly Mailer’s battles with himself, he married one of his many lovers, divorced her and then married Church, all in four days, during which he awoke one morning “distraught,” according to Lennon, and said he wished he were free and alone in Paris. Church pointed out that he’d simply meet a pretty girl there, buy her a cup of coffee, start living with her and get her pregnant. “And you wouldn’t be free and alone in Paris anymore, would you?”
Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton distinguished professor of English at Florida State University.
A Double Life
By J. Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster. 947 pp. $40