Norman Mailer entered Harvard in the fall of 1939, just as World War II began. His famous novel about part of that war, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948, and at age 25, like Lord Byron, he awoke to find himself famous. Sixty years later, looking back on the book’s immense success—it topped the New York Times Book Review’s bestseller list for 11 consecutive weeks and remained on that list for 62 more—he commented on the experience of sudden fame: “I knew I’d be a celebrity when I came back to America [he and his wife were living in Paris] and I felt very funny towards it, totally unprepared. . . . I’ve always seen myself as an observer. And now I knew, realized, that I was going to be an actor on the American stage, so to speak.”
From that time until his death in 2007, Mailer’s career both as observer and actor—manifested in the 40 or so books he would write—gave us, in the words of Warner Berthoff, “a uniquely substantial record of what it had meant to be alive” in that long era.
Although Mailer has been capably biographed before and was the subject of a large oral history by Peter Manso, J. Michael Lennon’s 960-page account of him won’t be improved upon. Not satisfied with producing this herculean biography, Lennon has followed it with a comparably thick selection of Mailer’s letters. Lennon knew Mailer for decades, talked extensively with him, and recorded what he heard. Unlike many biographers, Lennon feels the need to say something in judgment, however brief, of every one of Mailer’s books. To do this, while keeping the “life” narrative moving along, is a feat he performs with care and without pomposity.
Lennon is especially attentive to Mailer’s undergraduate life, where he compiled a lopsided academic record, with a major in engineering sciences and six courses in creative writing. As a sophomore, he read D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and what works of Henry Miller he could lay his hands on; both Lawrence and Miller would be central figures for the writer Mailer became. He wrote stories, published a novella (A Calculus at Heaven), and wrote a long unpublished one, A Transit to Narcissus, about a “lunatic asylum” in Mattapan, where he briefly worked. In an often-quoted anecdote, we find him, a few days after Pearl Harbor, debating with himself whether the war novel he was to write would be best set in Europe or the Pacific. Deciding that he didn’t know enough European history, he chose a scene that few knew much about: the Philippine terrain of The Naked and the Dead.
Some of Lennon’s most fascinating pages are about Mailer’s service as an infantryman in the war and, after the war’s end, as a cook in Japan. Lennon points out how the urban Mailer, child of Brooklyn and Harvard, nevertheless wrote, in more than one of his books, landscape descriptions that “crackle and pulse with energy,” ranking with the best of postwar American writers. Diana Trilling, one of Mailer’s earliest supportive critics, noted that the most dramatic moments in The Naked and the Dead “are precipitated by intensities in nature.”
Such intensities, however, were absent from the two novels that followed his bestseller. In the mid-1950s, Mailer, stung by the failure of his second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), and the mixed reception of his third, The Deer Park (1955), dreamed up the first of his impossible projects, that of writing eight interlocking novels that would explore topics such as pleasure, crime, communism, and homosexuality, ending with mysticism. The sequence would emanate from the mind of a character, Sam Slovoda, the protagonist of Mailer’s lively story “The Man Who Studied Yoga.”
What eventually ensued was not a novel at all but the first and best of Mailer’s miscellaneous books of nonfiction, Advertisements for Myself (1959), a work that more or less coincided with his stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales. In her own book about the event, Morales testifies that Mailer said to her, as she was being wheeled into the operating room, “I love you and I had to save you from cancer”—which is perhaps enough, and too much, to prove the madness that he succumbed to. His public explanation, scarcely a better one, was that “a decade’s anger” was responsible.