How to deal with Norman Mailer? I begin by acknowledging the truth of much that is being said about him, that he was a towering figure in American literary life for 60 years, almost unique in his search for notoriety and absolutely unrivaled in his co-existence with it. Roger Kimball of The New Criterion has written that Mailer "epitomized a certain species of macho, adolescent radicalism that helped to inure the wider public to displays of violence, anti-American tirades, and sexual braggadocio."
But to delve into one's own little portfolio, Mailer's career intersected with my own when in September 1962 two entrepreneurs rented the Medinah Temple in Chicago, which held over 4,000 people, and engaged Mailer and me to debate on the nature of the right wing in American politics. It pleased Mailer, who was complaining widely about his poverty, that Playboy magazine immediately contracted to publish his and my opening statements in its next issue.
A few years later I had Mailer as a guest on "Firing Line," and one critic was deeply inquisitive about the meaning of the engagement. "Seeing Buckley and Mailer on the tube yesterday I can't get over it," Mel Lyman wrote in the New York Avatar. "The greatest representation of the two extremes I've seen in a long time. Conservative meets liberal, right meets left, before meets after. Buckley didn't know what the f--- Mailer was talking about, it just jammed his computer, he even had to resort to childish insults to try and keep up his end." ("Norman Mailer decocts matters of the first philosophical magnitude from an examination of his own ordure, and I am not talking about his books," I had said.)
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"Buckley is a computer," Lyman went on, "Mailer is a man. A man can only be categorized and computerized to a certain extent, the greater part of him lies out of definition. Greatness can be recognized only. That is why Buckley went all to pieces when Mailer spoke of the 'greatness' he saw in Castro. Buckley could only see the un-American activities accredited to the man, Castro. He could only see him as far as he could define his actions. Mailer could look right at him, like a child, and see a great force, an inner strength, a fearlessness that had nothing to do with right or wrong.
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Mailer took two practical steps that bounced off our Chicago exchange. The first was to sue Playboy -- on the grounds that, manifestly, his essay was worth more than the $5,000 paid to us. That done, he said he wished to explore with me a string of Buckley-Mailer debates throughout the country, "beginning in Carnegie Hall."
This initiative brought him and his wife to our house in Stamford, Conn., and I took him out on my 36-foot sailboat. He could not believe it when I turned the wheel over to him, pointing out a course to the end of the harbor. It was very cold by the time we had finished dinner, but he ordered his wife, Jeannie, to the back of his motorcycle, and they zoomed off to Brooklyn.
There were other episodes. There was the night in New York when, after dinner, I said I needed to file a column, but he wasn't ready to go home, pursuing us to our apartment nearby. Wobbling up the steps, his then current wife passed out and was placed by my wife in a spare bedroom. Norman climbed upstairs with me to my study and spoke disparagingly of the column as, paragraph after paragraph, I gave it to him to read.
Finally he said it was time to go home, and we walked down the stairs to where his wife had been taken. But rousing her from that sleep defied any resource we were willing to deploy, so Norman announced fatalistically that, never mind, she would eventually rise, go out the street door and get a cab. "Me, I'm going home, Slugger," as he called my wife. I helped him find a cab.
But Norman Mailer is a towering writer! So why this small talk? Perhaps because it no longer seems so very small. I said about Mailer a few years ago that he created the most beautiful metaphors in the language. I reiterate that judgment. But I go further, wondering out loud whether the obituaries are, finally, drawing attention to the phenomenon of Norman Mailer from the appropriate perspective. The newspaper of record says of him, as though such a profile were routine, that he was married six times, that he nearly killed one wife with a penknife, and that he had nine children. What if he had had seven wives, the seventh of them abandoned there in somebody's bedroom, waiting for a taxi to take her home, any home? Would that have claimed the obituarist's attention?