'Norman Mailer: A Double Life': the naked and the dull

J. Michael Lennon pens an exhaustive (and exhausting) life of Norman Mailer.

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Norman Mailer produced a prodigious amount of words in his remarkable writing career, but humility wasn't one he applied to himself. He preferred "celebrity," as the title of J. Michael Lennon's "official" biography reflects.

"Celebrities," Mailer told a TV talk show host in 1995, "are used to living with two personalities ... the at-home personality; when you're brushing your teeth you're like everybody else." The other one "has power in the world ... and people virtually [urinate] in their pants when they meet you."

By J. Michael Lennon.
Simon & Schuster ($40).

Mailer explained he had lived with this "double nature" since he was 25 when his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead," appeared to critical praise in 1948. Cited as one of the first insightful novels about World War II, the book threw its young author into the limelight from which he never left.

He was remarking on this "double life" in describing his plans to write a novel about Jesus. Writes Mr. Lennon, Mailer "was confident he could make reasonable surmises about Jesus' dual nature by references to his own." That book, "The Gospel According to the Son," got a rocky reception when it was published in 1997, including one in The New Republic which inspired Mailer to punch the magazine's editor in the face.

Mailer believed that bad behavior, from stabbing his third wife so severely she nearly bled to death to carrying on hundreds of extramarital affairs, was his right. He ran for mayor of New York City, was arrested numerous times, including at the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-war march on Washington, went out of his way to insult enemies real and imagined, fathered eight children in six marriages, insisting he opposed birth control, and fearlessly, if not recklessly, attacked social and political policies from feminism to the conduct of the Cold War.

In short, he was the most public of American writers.

The other side of Mailer's personality produced the best commentary and reportage on America's social and literary history written in the late 20th century. From the essay "The White Negro" in 1957 to "The Executioner's Song" in 1979, he consistently examined and debated the major issues of the times. He told Mr. Lennon that he regretted being remembered for his nonfiction rather than his fiction, but the latter came to lack the urgency and originality of Mailer's passion about his country.

The biographer, emeritus professor and administrator at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, attached himself to Mailer in the 1970s like a barnacle stuck to a great white whale. Instead of identifying and then focusing on the significant moments in Mailer's life, Mr. Lennon throws everything he has at us in a flat, workmanlike prose that could use a punch in the face now and then itself.

Here's how he describes his subject's arbitrary attitude toward his work: "Metaphorically speaking, he always kept a bag packed on the chance he would hear the train whistle of a new adventure, which could lead to new energy, new success."

Then there's the TMI problem as Mr. Lennon describes the writer's daily routine: "[Mailer] goes to the loo around 11 and sits on the can reading for a long time." Readers might wish that Mr. Lennon spent more pages analyzing his subject's work rather than his toilet habits. In fact, Mailer's legacy will persevere in his books long after his antics and anecdotes are best forgotten.

If Mr. Lennon's doorstop of a biography should accomplish anything except an obsessive chronicle of Mailer's comings and goings, it will be to send us back to his writing so we can appreciate what truly matters in his life.


Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Post-Gazette.

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