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His friends all tell similar stories: Norman Mailer at a dinner party, awards ceremony or afternoon gathering, hobbling on canes up or down a few steps or a flight of stairs, short of breath, as if getting from one place to another was a struggle even greater than finding the right word to finish a paragraph.
Then, he would be seated, and was himself again.
“We would talk about everything,” novelist William Kennedy said of Mailer, who died Saturday at age 84 after spending more than two months in and out of hospitals. “He knew he wasn’t going to live very much longer, but he would still talk of taking on the greatest subjects. He always was working on something.”
“He was absolutely dauntless,” said Jason Epstein, who edited several of Mailer’s books at Random House. “He was quite weak in the end, but he still planned to write a seven-volume novel about Hitler.”
The Pulitzer-Prize winning Mailer, the eminent literary journalist, drama king and gentleman, eternal striver for the Great American Novel, seemed to embody in recent years not just one writer, but a generation for whom the printed word was a noble and endangered way of life.
More than such peers as Gore Vidal, William Styron or Kurt Vonnegut, Mailer was the writer as Writer, not a career to be printed on a business card, but a calling, an identity, with all the follies and privileges to which a man alert to his own gifts felt entitled.
‘I had more emotion than most’
He wrote letters to the president, sounded off on talk shows, likened himself to Picasso, placed himself on a “plateau” with Jacqueline Kennedy.
“Some part of me knew that I had more emotion than most,” Mailer, who married six times and stabbed one of his wives, once wrote. He cautioned himself not to “exhaust the emotions of others.”
“He was interesting, because he was interested,” said Vidal, a longtime friend and occasional rival. “He had a radical imagination, a way of approaching subjects that was never boring.”
“He was by nature bound to a style of excess,” said E.L. Doctorow, who worked with Mailer in the 1960s as an editor at the Dial Press. “There were times when you would be fed up with him, but if you could conceive of American culture of the past 50 years without Norman Mailer, you would find it a lot drearier.”
Lightning struck early for Mailer, and he struck back. In his 20s, he was the prodigy behind “The Naked and the Dead,” the World War II novel that made him instantly, and prematurely famous. He came back in his 30s as the master self-advertiser, the anointer of John F. Kennedy as “Superman” at the supermarket. In his 40s, he was the fighting narrator-participant in “The Armies of the Night”; in his 50s, the cool chronicler of killer Gary Gilmore.
Bureaucracy was the enemy
His hero was the authentic, autonomous man — the boxer, or graffiti artist, or maestro of jazz, or the “Norman Mailer” who starred in “The Armies of the Night” and other works of journalism. The bureaucratic mind was his enemy, from the military leaders of “The Naked and the Dead” to the Kleenex box-like skyscrapers that appalled him when looking out from his Brooklyn town house, to the processed presidency of Richard Nixon.
“Nixon’s crime is his inability to rise above the admiration for the corporation,” Mailer wrote in 1974, commenting on the Oval Office tapes that would help drive Nixon from office.
It was easy to make fun of Mailer, with his chesty and sometimes foolish pronouncements, his nerve as a man in his 80s to write a 450-page novel about the childhood of Hitler, as told by an underling of Satan, with a bibliography citing Milton, Tolstoy and Freud.
But mocking Mailer was really just a way of putting down ourselves. Mailer’s greatest risk was to presume that writing — and writers — mattered. To argue with him was good sport. To dismiss him was to dismiss literature itself.
Though he believed in reincarnation, we shouldn’t count on such luck again. He was a man who saw the world whole and still forgave it.
We have only started to miss him.