The Norman Invasion was the talk of New York in the late 1950s and early '60s. Norman Podhoretz gave the definitive brief account of his co-Norman's character and personality in Ex-Friends; and it wasn't pretty. But it's fair to point out, nonetheless, that Mailer transformed himself by sheer force of will into one of the best English stylists of the later 20th century and wrote several books that will last. History will show (if it hasn't already) that Podhoretz was the more important Norman by far. But Mailer had his own kind of significance.
For Norman Mailer, writing came easily, but not good writing--and that fact underlies his literary career. He had no facility, and like Cézanne, achieved greatness by a ferocious effort that made every sentence electric. Of course, for Mailer to write something great (or even good) was like bench-pressing 300 pounds: He was rarely up to it, or rarely bothered. But he did write four first-rate books, of which two were masterpieces (and three were generally dismissed). He was a victim of his own premature fame and his lust for celebrity. It's an old story: He blew his horn so loudly and often that when he finally produced novels worth celebrating, the party was over and everyone had gone home.
The Naked and the Dead (1948), which made his reputation, is a loosely written, barely edited account of the Second World War on a South Pacific island (where Mailer himself had fought). Its dense, rambling verbal underbrush accidentally evokes the jungle in which the story takes place. It has some good passages, but how the New York literary world (in its pre-decadent state!) could have seen the hand of a master in this third-rate pile is anybody's guess.
On finding himself a famous author, however, Mailer did a strange thing. In fact, he did many strange things, but the one I have in mind is this: He transformed himself into a superb writer with a memorable, wholly distinctive, voice. Only one of his four finest books was recognized as such at the time; The Armies of the Night (1968) is a faintly disgusting account of the most famous, and the largest, antiwar march on the Pentagon, in October 1967, of which Mailer was one of the leaders. The action is ugly and so (in the light of his book) was the author; yet the narrative moves with the rocketing momentum of an IRT express. And Mailer has the saving grace, as he usually did in later years, of not taking himself too seriously and recognizing the pomposity and self-importance that he could laugh at even if he couldn't shake it.
His next three masterpieces were generally ignored or dismissed. But Of a Fire on the Moon (1970) is, by far, the best book written about Apollo 11, an event that should have inspired many good books. And by the way, there is nothing condescending or nasty in Mailer's tone when he writes about the American heroes of the moon program. He admired manliness and bravery, even among patriotic Americans. Ancient Evenings (1983) was his first great novel, an uncanny evocation of ancient Egypt and a world almost inconceivably foreign. In sheer imaginative power there are few novels to compare to it in the 20th century, or any century, but few seemed to care. Yet it was a smash hit compared with his greatest work, Harlot's Ghost (1991), a thousand-page novel about the CIA. (And once again, where you would expect the wacko-leftist Mailer to be hostile or patronizing, he isn't.) At the end of Harlot's Ghost the action stops in the middle, with the mystery of Harlot's death unsolved. Mailer promised to write a second installment, but Part One was so widely disliked, it's no surprise that he never got around to it.
In Harlot's Ghost, Mailer's prose reaches maturity at last. It is brilliant and commanding, sometimes poetic, even majestic. (Read the account, toward the beginning, of a near-accident on an icy road.) Harlot's Ghost is loosely structured, and like many of Mailer's books, needs pruning as much as a leggy rosebush. But with all its faults, it will stand among the best American novels of the 20th century.
It's true, of course, that Mailer had the disconcerting habit of regularly issuing awful books; his career was as poorly edited as his novels. His Picasso biography (1995) was bad enough, but his retelling of the Gospel story (1997) was so inept it is painful even to think about. As a prominent American he did little for America; as a prominent Jew he did little for the Jews. But at his best he was as funny as Philip Roth, as lyrically evocative as John Updike, as thoughtful and profoundly observant as Saul Bellow--and at his very best was better than any of them. And now that he is dead, his very best is what counts.
David Gelernter, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most
recently, of Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.