Nor­man Mail­er: A Dou­ble Life

J. Michael Lennon
  • Review
By – November 19, 2013

J. Michael Lennon’s autho­rized biog­ra­phy of Nor­man Mail­er is free from the syco­phancy that often attends such projects. Mail­er him­self read­i­ly admit­ted to and some­times cel­e­brat­ed his warts. His biographer’s unre­strict­ed access to resources not pre­vi­ous­ly drawn upon has result­ed in a tow­er­ing, bal­anced por­trait of the man, his achieve­ments, and his short­com­ings. Mail­er told Lennon to put every­thing in.” This could be dan­ger­ous advice, but it was the same advice that Mail­er usu­al­ly gave him­self in his dri­ve to craft com­pre­hen­sive respons­es to com­plex questions.

Lennon cap­tures Mailer’s enor­mous dri­ve to mas­ter his craft, to exper­i­ment with form and genre, to build a rep­u­ta­tion, and to con­tend with the large issues of his coun­try and cul­ture for six decades. This biog­ra­phy is not only indis­pens­able for stu­dents of Mail­er, but also for any­one inter­est­ed in tak­ing the pulse of the Unit­ed States through those decades. More and more, Mail­er put him­self on the stages of lit­er­ary and polit­i­cal his­to­ry, shap­ing both through his par­tic­i­pa­tion and shap­ing our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry through his influ­en­tial, if some­times abra­sive, representations.

The book is fas­ci­nat­ing through­out. All read­ers will ben­e­fit from Lennon’s treat­ment of Mailer’s writ­ing process, his com­pul­sive phi­lan­der­ing, his often crass self-pro­mo­tion, his unex­pect­ed dis­ci­pline, his capac­i­ty for vio­lence, his attrac­tion to and sym­pa­thy for crim­i­nals, his rela­tion­ships with his many chil­dren and his peers, and his risk-tak­ing in all areas of life and art.

Com­pelling, too, is Lennon’s por­trait of Mailer’s role as a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al, a biographer/​interpreter of cul­tur­al icons (Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, Pablo Picas­so, Lee Har­vey Oswald), and as a man whose self-cre­at­ed per­sona includ­ed a dynam­ic of dual­ism. It’s not so much that Mail­er had a dou­ble life, as the title sug­gests, but rather an iden­ti­ty found­ed in the ener­gy of con­test­ing oppo­sites. Mail­er found this notion of him­self to be, as well, a way of look­ing at human­i­ty in gen­er­al and at the char­ac­ter of Amer­i­can civ­i­liza­tion.

A rest­less man who thrived on con­fronta­tion, Lennon’s Mail­er aspired to be a mas­ter of the­ater and film as well as sev­er­al branch­es of lit­er­a­ture includ­ing a few that he helped estab­lish (per­son­al jour­nal­ism, non­fic­tion nov­el). The biographer’s detailed, live­ly treat­ments of Mailer’s frus­tra­tions as a play­wright, screen­play writer, and direc­tor are among the book’s many delights. Mail­er did, in fact, have a few qual­i­fied suc­cess­es in these areas.Though Lennon cap­tures the strands of Jew­ish cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty in Mailer’s com­plex per­son­al­i­ty and self-aware­ness, these strands are only a minor ele­ment in the daz­zling weave of his subject’s mul­ti­fac­eted being.

Acknowl­edg­ments, appre­ci­a­tions, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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