I met Norman Mailer in the early 1990s, during a party at the New York Athletic Club. The party was for Mailer's friend Richard Stratton, who had a novel out, and Mailer was the host, holding court at the bar, a flushed grin on his face.
Knowing almost no one, I kept to the corners, avoiding Mailer altogether. Still, I couldn't help looking at him periodically, and at one point, I caught his eye.
For a moment, the two of us watched each other, until I turned away. I hadn't taken more than a step or two, though, when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and there was Mailer, hand extended, having come over to introduce himself.
That story illustrates everything one needs to know about Norman Mailer, casting the two essential, contradictory threads of his personality, the ego and the insecurity, in sharp relief.
Mailer, after all, was the sort of author who could both dazzle and infuriate, often within the space of a single paragraph. He was a major talent who could not keep himself from reminding you that he was a major talent, an astute observer of his moment, who tended to operate as if that moment were entirely his.
He was equally famous for his writing and his exploits: the precocious 25-year-old whose 1948 debut, "The Naked and the Dead," is considered by many the greatest American war novel ever written; the provocateur who co-founded the Village Voice in 1955 and, 14 years later, ran for mayor of New York on a secession ticket (Jimmy Breslin was his running mate), with a slogan urging, "Vote the scoundrels in."
Although he liked to dismiss journalism as less than artful -- "generally speaking," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 2004, "journalism is sloppy writing, and unless you have a real talent, it can injure you to write too quickly" -- his legacy rests on "The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song," the book-length works of reportage for which he won Pulitzer prizes in 1969 and 1980, respectively.
Mailer, for his part, preferred to think of himself as a "novelist," which he saw as the writer's highest calling, even though his own fiction was often sprawling and flawed. In his final book, "On God: An Uncommon Conversation" (published only 3 1/2 weeks ago), he referred to God as a supreme artist, the novelist at the heart of the universe. This tells us more than a little about where his sensibilities stood.
And yet, the fascinating thing about Mailer was that he remained so, well, fascinating, so much at the center of our cultural life.
Partly, it was his prose style, which even at its most self-promotional, was scalpel-sharp and piercing, the expression of a mind that seemed to notice everything.
Even more, it had to do with Mailer's sense of engagement, of the writer as a public figure, the idea that art had a connection to the world.
That's a notion Mailer took from the French writers of the 1940s and 1950s, people like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom literature was a form of confrontation, a way of wrestling with the times.
Mailer explored this in both nonfiction and fiction: a 1967 novel was called "Why Are We in Vietnam?" At times, he failed, maddeningly; his 1957 essay, "The White Negro," now reads as a bit of pseudo-hipster posturing, while his infamous stance on the women's movement came off as shockingly uninformed.
Perhaps his greatest misstep had to do with Jack Henry Abbott, an ex-convict he championed for his writing; six weeks after his parole, amid a swelter of publicity for his book of prison letters, "In the Belly of the Beast," Abbott killed a waiter in a Manhattan eatery. Years later, Mailer would call the experience "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in."
Mailer's critics saw the Abbott saga as yet another symbol of the author's ego: He so loved the idea of discovering this writer that he overlooked the danger in the man he'd helped unleash.
Abbott, though, was emblematic of Mailer in another way -- his attraction to iconic individuals, people he might frame as metaphors. His work is dotted with such figures: Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, Adolf Hitler, Jesus Christ.
On the one hand, this, too, has everything to do with ego, but on the other, there's something more profound at stake. What Mailer was after was a mythology of the modern era, an era bounded by war, celebrity and religion, and played out across a vast social divide.
It's been said that no other major American author wrote so many bad books, and especially in the 1970s, when he produced glorified works-for-hire like "Marilyn" and "The Fight" while duking it out with Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett Show. He drifted into caricature in those years. But what makes Mailer remarkable is that he never disavowed any of it; instead, he saw it all as part of his writing life.
In 1998, to commemorate his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of "The Naked and the Dead," he published a retrospective volume, "The Time of Our Time." It's a revealing book for a variety of reasons, not least because Mailer left nothing out. There it all is: the brilliant reportage and the inconsistent fiction, the literature and the hack work side by side.
Ego? Perhaps. Insecurity? Maybe. Yet more to the point, what Mailer put on display is what, for better and for worse, his whole career was about: one man's struggle to come to terms with himself and the times he'd been born into, a portrait of the artist as he really was.
David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.