Norman Mailer, a colossus who bestrode worlds both literary and journalistic – and, at his best, combined them – has died of acute renal failure, according to the Times. Mailer had been in poor health for some time, and, given his hospitalization last month and his advanced age, his death comes as no surprise. And yet, in another way, it seems shocking: of the celebrated Jewish-American men who remade our literature in the middle of the last century (Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Salinger), Mailer seemed the most ecstatically alive. He rarely shied from a fight, or turned down an opportunity for self-promotion on the grounds that it might be beneath his dignity. Pursuing a life that would be its own kind of art – or at least entertainment – he indulged a vast range of interests: sports commentator, filmmaker, celebrity, co-founder of the Village Voice, mayoral candidate, drunk…. And this prodigious energy, this tendency to follow it whither it led, may explain why, of the authors cited above, his ratio of dross to gold was the highest. One occupation Mailer never seriously explored, to my knowledge, was editor.
That said, his death should clarify certain things about the Mailer canon, among them this: When he was good, he was brilliant. I cannot claim to have waded through Ancient Evenings, but The Executioner’s Song, in its own strange way, surpasses the journalistic achievements of Capote’s In Cold Blood, and leaves almost every other novel written in the Seventies looking morally and intellectually trivial. A writer less vainglorious – less convinced of his own ability to get all of life on the page – could never have written this book. In a way, Mailer was the last of the Romantics, more an heir to Byron than to Hemingway. Let us hope that his own heirs will be able to see through the glare of his celebrity to the writer, the sly rope-a-doper, who hid behind it.