WASHINGTON -- "I like Norman," my old friend Malcolm Muggeridge used to exult when, for whatever reason, his mind fixed on Norman Mailer, the great American writer who has now bit the dust. Malcolm himself was a great British writer, whose two volumes of autobiography are among the best in English in the 20th century and whose prose Tom Wolfe has placed in a league with Mencken and Orwell. Muggeridge was also an original, which in part must explain his fondness for Norman. Norman, too, was one of a kind.
I, at first, did not share Muggeridge's esteem for Norman. In fact, when I first read Norman in the 1960s and early 1970s, I rather hated him. But as life went on, I came to Muggeridge's side. Norman was a genuine literary talent without being precious. He could write a very clean sentence and pack it with fireworks. When he was not snarling -- and he snarled less frequently as time went on -- he was good company, always interesting and occasionally even right. He was gutsy, energetic, playful and devoted to telling a good story and telling it well. Moreover, I liked many of the same things he liked: competitive athletics, books, politics, the American scene. Indicative of his independent streak was his opposition to feminism, which for a New York liberal, could lead to exile. Indicative of his left-wing bent, he obsessed over "the corporation" and furnished his obsession with the usual left-wing ghosts and goblins.
Despite the very public philippics I hurled at him as late as the 1970s, we entered into an amiable acquaintance. I doubt it was in Norman's nature to bear grudges, at least once the peace pipe had been smoked. When asked to participate in American Spectator symposiums, he always would take part, though the magazine's writers often were among his critics. His contributions were always intelligent and lively. He even attended one of the magazine's editorial dinners as the featured guest. The scene could have been bloody, for Norman was given an hour to trot out his favorite ideas, some of which were quite hostile to our libertarian-conservative sensibilities. Norman showed up on time and unaccompanied by bodyguards. He was as brave as his legend proclaims. He was also charming, and at the end of the dinner, off he went into the night with a couple of Spectator writers, ready for a few more drinks and laughs.