Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon

Norman Mailer's seven decade writing career produced a dozen novels, nonfiction on a wide variety of topics including sports, politics, history and religion, plays, films (in which he served as director or actor) and essays in a variety of publications such as Esquire, Playboy, Dissent and The Village Voice (which he helped found). He ran for mayor of New York, stabbed one of his wives and became an important enough cultural figure to be credited by The Simpsons for writing Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie: The Novel. It seems appropriate that J. Michael Lennon's new Mailer biography is both massive and quirky, like the man himself.

Lennon is an English professor at Wilkes University and both an acquaintance of, and one of our foremost experts on, Norman Mailer. Much of this book is based on interviews with Mailer, who requested that Lennon write his biography, as well as Mailer's friends and acquaintances. I feel like it would have been easy for Lennon to slip into overanalytic academese so I was pleased that Lennon kept to the basic plot of Mailer's life and influence, with analysis of his individual books kept to a minimum (and often provided by Mailer himself, in his correspondence and responses to critical reception).

Mailer's love of his adopted hometown of Provincetown, MA is well documented in this book, but while Lennon tries to analyze Mailer's relationships with women, the variety of long-lasting affairs that he had over his six marriages seem indefensible as anything other than the work of a womanizer. His longest  and final marriage, which Mailer seemed most committed to preserving, seems to have only barely persevered through its affairs, which Mailer ended only after the threat of divorce. The best parts of this book are devoted to Mailer's relationships with other writers, many of which were as stormy as his marriages. He was critical in public of his colleagues and often drunk, which provided for many public confrontations.

Lennon seems to have some strange fixations in this book, such as outlining Mailer's running feud with a critic for the New York Times, which comes across as trying to resurrect an old grudge. But overall, Lennon gets much credit for keeping this book moving. Weighing in at nearly 800 pages, the book, while hefty, was not a burden to get through. This is largely due to both the variety of incidents in Mailer's life and Lennon's unwillingness to dwell on any particular events. I walked away from the book without a clear idea of how skilled a writer Mailer was (I've read perhaps four of his books) and frankly, many of his ideas seem off-the-wall when articulated. But the book does an excellent job of making Mailer's cultural impact clear and should be an enjoyable read for both those who are already fans and others who might be only slightly aware of Mailer's career.

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