In Memoriam

So Long, Sweet Scientist: Norman Mailer Dies at 84

By posted at 7:17 am on November 10, 2007 6

Norman Mailer, a colossus who bestrode worlds both literary and journalistic – and, at his best, combined them – has died of acute renal failure, according to the Times. Mailer had been in poor health for some time, and, given his hospitalization last month and his advanced age, his death comes as no surprise. And yet, in another way, it seems shocking: of the celebrated Jewish-American men who remade our literature in the middle of the last century (Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Salinger), Mailer seemed the most ecstatically alive. He rarely shied from a fight, or turned down an opportunity for self-promotion on the grounds that it might be beneath his dignity. Pursuing a life that would be its own kind of art – or at least entertainment – he indulged a vast range of interests: sports commentator, filmmaker, celebrity, co-founder of the Village Voice, mayoral candidate, drunk…. And this prodigious energy, this tendency to follow it whither it led, may explain why, of the authors cited above, his ratio of dross to gold was the highest. One occupation Mailer never seriously explored, to my knowledge, was editor.

coverThat said, his death should clarify certain things about the Mailer canon, among them this: When he was good, he was brilliant. I cannot claim to have waded through Ancient Evenings, but The Executioner’s Song, in its own strange way, surpasses the journalistic achievements of Capote’s In Cold Blood, and leaves almost every other novel written in the Seventies looking morally and intellectually trivial. A writer less vainglorious – less convinced of his own ability to get all of life on the page – could never have written this book. In a way, Mailer was the last of the Romantics, more an heir to Byron than to Hemingway. Let us hope that his own heirs will be able to see through the glare of his celebrity to the writer, the sly rope-a-doper, who hid behind it.

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6 Responses to “So Long, Sweet Scientist: Norman Mailer Dies at 84”

  1. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 9:55 am on November 12, 2007

    RE: NM's never turning down a self-promo op: Did you know he had a cameo on the Gilmore Girls?

  2. Max
    at 9:59 am on November 12, 2007

    Indeed. I saw that episode. He was pretty funny. And it was fun to see a literary cameo. You don't get too many of those these days.

  3. dglen
    at 10:22 am on November 12, 2007

    Ditto on Executioner's Song.

  4. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 11:29 am on November 12, 2007

    Yeah, I don't think I've ever seen another literary cameo.

  5. tbeshear
    at 8:51 am on November 13, 2007

    Well, there's Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons. Of course, he was a cartoon and wore a paper bag over his head, but still….

  6. Publications « Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 6:04 pm on May 10, 2012

    […] Sentence * Fillet of Mockingbird in a Gladwell Reduction Sauce * Grace Paley 1922 – 2007 *  So Long, Norman Mailer * Claude Levi-Strauss, […]

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