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Norman Mailer: 1923 - 2007

He was a character, on and off the page

'The Naked and the Dead' author had a tough-guy approach that reaped him glory and scorn.

November 11, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Norman Mailer, the pugnacious two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who jabbed and bobbed his way, sometimes literally, through an extraordinary career as one of the most original and audacious voices in postwar American letters, died Saturday. He was 84.

Beset by serious health problems that required heart bypass surgery in 2005 and hospitalizations for lung problems this fall, Mailer died of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, according to J. Michael Lennon, his literary executor.

Mailer, called "a great and obsessed stylist" by Joan Didion, wrote nearly 50 books that zigzagged among genres, including fiction, biography, history, essays and highly personal journalism. He was a grand provocateur with an unapologetically macho sensibility who, in acts on and off the page, reaped more glory, failure and notoriety than any other major writer of his generation.

"There was no voice like his," Didion said Saturday from her home in New York. ". . . The shape of the sentence, the way the words worked together, he understood that and it was very, very important to him."

In his work, Mailer grappled with the salient events and personalities of his time -- whether writing about the Cold War and anti-Vietnam War protests or icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali. He refracted the gamut of contemporary culture -- existentialism, political conventions, Apollo moon shots, sex and relations between the sexes -- through what writer Camille Paglia called his "very complex consciousness."

His fiction revealed the vastness of his aspirations. After rocketing to the top of the literary heap at 25 with a World War II novel, "The Naked and the Dead" (1948), he went on to write an "autobiography" of Jesus ("The Gospel According to the Son," 1997) and a saga that swept across two centuries of Egyptian history ("Ancient Evenings," 1983). His last novel, "The Castle in the Forest," published this year, imagines Adolf Hitler as a boy and is narrated by a devil.

Although novelist was the identity that Mailer cherished most, it was not his most celebrated role. He "has never been able to write convincing dialogue, a fact that has seriously limited him," Tom Wolfe once wrote. Of Mailer's four dozen books, only 10 were novels in the traditional sense, and the bad reviews outweighed the good.

Most critics would say Mailer never reached his goal of writing the Great American Novel, but Didion, the consummate prose stylist of "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and other classics, quickly dismissed that notion.

"He wrote it about a dozen times," she said. "Once he wrote it with 'Executioner's Song' and didn't call it a novel."

She was alluding to Mailer's command of the hybrid genre that became known as New Journalism, the novelistic rendering of factual stories. His "The Armies of the Night" (1968), about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and "The Executioner's Song" (1979), about Utah double-murderer Gary Gilmore, proved he was a master of this demanding form, pioneered by Truman Capote, that blurred the lines between literature and reportage. The Pulitzer committee honored the former novel for nonfiction and the latter for fiction, validating the protean nature of Mailer's talent.

Critics thought it notable that there was no Mailer character in "The Executioner's Song." It was the exception in an extensive body of nonfiction work in which Mailer featured himself as the often buffoonish participant-observer.

In "The Armies of the Night," which also won a National Book Award, the author was ever present as the persona variously called "Mailer," "the Beast," "the Ruminant" and "the General." He called himself "Aquarius" in "Of a Fire on the Moon," "the Prisoner" in "The Prisoner of Sex" and "the reporter" in "Miami and the Siege of Chicago." Sometimes, as in "The Fight," a small classic about the 1974 bout pitting Ali against George Foreman, he was simply "Norman."

"For a heady period, no major public event in U.S. life seemed quite complete until Mailer had observed himself observing it," Paul Gray wrote in Time magazine in 1983.

An unruly image

The hubris that enabled such bold work also fueled the extra-literary exploits that burnished Mailer's unruly image.

He divorced five wives and, in 1960, nearly stabbed one to death. In the 1970s, at the height of the women's movement, he was reviled by feminists, in part because of the stabbing but also because of his impolitic characterizations of women as "low, sloppy beasts" who were made to bear children. In 1981 Mailer sponsored the parole of Jack Henry Abbott, a convict with literary ambitions, an experience that turned tragic when Abbott killed a man six weeks after his release.

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