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Writers puzzle out Mailer legacy

The provocative author isn't as widely read as other leaders of New Journalism. But the literary world says he's a tough act to follow.

November 17, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

NORMAN MAILER, who died last weekend at 84, was incontestably one of the titans of American letters: novelist, journalist, essayist, would-be politician and overall provocateur. Whatever the genre, he was a powerful writer -- New Yorker editor David Remnick calls his a "locomotive prose style" -- who could combine sheer intellectual force with great literary finesse. As Peter Kaplan, editor in chief of the New York Observer, put it, Mailer "made nonfiction writing into an intellectual and soulful exercise," in the process transforming American journalism with his "pyrotechnic" style and "massive, cosmic" ideas.

And yet in the past week the literary world was not just mourning him but also grappling with his complicated legacy.

"If there's a conventional wisdom over the last week, it seems to be that his great literary talent was always at war with his judgment and exhibitionism," Remnick said. "And there is no doubt in my mind that some of his political judgments, especially early on, were foolish.

"But if you were to judge all literary reputations on consistent liberalism, and even temper, you'd have a very small canon, wouldn't you? It wouldn't just eliminate people like Pound and Eliot and the obvious people who were edging toward fascism, but even people I know now -- I wouldn't want them to be president of the United States."

Remnick added that besides the acknowledged classics such as "The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song," such books as "Harlot's Ghost," the 1,300-page novel inspired by the CIA, have a lot of Mailer's strengths.

Still, for all of his importance to what's known as New Journalism, Mailer is not as widely read as the other lions of the movement, according to Marc Weingarten, author of "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution," and he lacks the following those iconic three have among the current crop of younger writers.

Sexual politics may have often kept this supposed sexist off college reading lists, said his friend and fellow writer Gay Talese. "With feminism so powerful in the academic world, he was not up there with Toni Morrison."

Similarly, said culture critic Lee Siegel, who praises the late work, including the recent "The Castle in the Forest," as well as the early, Mailer was the object of envy throughout his life. He was also disliked by many fellow Jewish writers and critics, Siegel said, because he didn't write about Jewish life, and didn't effect their gentility. "His personas were usually redneck Texans or tough Irish cops, and that alienated a lot of Jewish critics."

His work was more difficult, with fewer surface pleasures, than the other writers who merged journalistic and fictional techniques, Weingarten said. "Hunter was a comedian, in a way, and Wolfe was a deconstructor of a specific time in our social history. While Mailer was sort of a dark skeptic of everything going on in that era, neither a cheerleader nor a funny debunker." Thompson's books, he said, became "self-help guides to personal desecration. And Wolfe was more fun to read."

And especially as the nation's gender politics changed in the '60s and '70s, he became harder for men and women to like because of a machismo widely interpreted as misogyny. Though he was a founder of the alternative press -- Mailer helped establish the Village Voice in 1955 -- he was not often claimed by a subculture that went in a very different direction than he did.

"His propensity toward violence, the fact that he stabbed his wife Adele, the Jack Henry Abbott stuff" -- in which Mailer lobbied for the parole of a prisoner who killed a waiter soon after his release -- "left a bad taste in people's mouth," said Weingarten. "That's why they embraced Didion the way they couldn't embrace Mailer."

It's a shame, he said, because despite spotty recent novels -- "The last decade has been a lost decade for him" -- Mailer's best nonfiction work can compare with anyone's. (Weingarten is fond of Mailer's writing about Los Angeles, as when he described the city, in a piece about the 1960 Democratic National Convention, as looking like it "was built by television sets giving orders to men.")

" 'The Armies of the Night' to me was the best examination of the counterculture I've read -- anything that was wrong and right about it. How the counterculture had alienated the civil rights movement. By making himself a flawed character, with self-doubt and his own divided loyalties, he made himself a conduit for all these questions. It's more insightful than the books of Thompson and Wolfe."

Influence on writers

Remnick thinks Mailer continues to be "a big influence" on writers.

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