Pugnacious writer whose talent was too often obscured by the frantic circus of his personal life
Norman Mailer wanted to be the Hemingway of his generation, but it is not as a novelist that he will be remembered - even The Naked and the Dead, the Second World War story which made him famous at the age of 25, is rarely read today. Too often in the course of Mailer's career, celebrity triumphed over undeniable talent. His best work was fact-based, and often derived from journalistic commissions, though Mailer derided journalism on the grounds that the story already existed for the writer. A novelist, he argued, had a much greater task - "Having to make up the story and write well is equal to Pavarotti having to write his own music."
Mailer was born in New Jersey into a Jewish family and grew up in Brooklyn. Despite the parochialism of his childhood environs, he refused from the start to be corralled into any kind of ethnic literary ghetto, unlike other prominent Jewish writers of his time - Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth most prominently. He always acknowledged that he had "a Jewish temperament . . . a Jewish mind . . . in every way I consider myself Jewish", yet he set out with admirable energy to carve a canvas out of a larger world.
Mailer's expansive egotism had its roots in a doting mother who gave him unconditional love, yet his preoccupation with masculinity, especially his own, was a reaction against his father, a meek, mild- mannered accountant with a weakness for a furtive flutter. Mailer once remarked that the one personality he "found unsupportable [was] the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn", and much of the volatile behaviour of his adult life must surely be ascribed to his determination not to inhabit the stereotype.
Educated locally, he went to Harvard as a precocious 16-year- old, ostensibly to study aeronautical engineering - evidence of a rampant, almost omnivorous intelligence. But he had written his first novel at the age of 11, and at Harvard he began writing for The Harvard Advocate, then won a national short story competition. After graduating in 1943, he wrote two unpublished novels and was drafted into the Army in the following year. Shipped to the Pacific, he served in the Philippines as a rifleman with the 112th Regimental Combat Team, a Texas regiment, and his experiences formed the basis for his first and most famous novel, The Naked and the Dead, which was published in 1948, just as the demobbed and newly married Mailer was enrolling at the Sorbonne.
The book became an overnight sensation. For an American reading public now removed from the horrors of war that had not touched most of them anyway, Mailer's epic account of his infantry platoon was dramatic, life-like, and colourful. Though other war novels had and would appear (Gore Vidal's Williwaw, James Jones's From Here to Eternity), The Naked and the Dead was the de rigueur read about the war. Inevitably, a major motion picture followed its success.
Yet it is a hard read today, a sprawling, cumbersome saga that reads like the fusion of literary ambition and severely limited artistic experience - as indeed it was. Its anachronistic use of "fug" and "fugging" in place of the real words now seems merely quaint, and the prose alternates between pedestrian and purple - little wonder that the young Mailer likened himself to Theodore Dreiser, arguably the worst prose stylist none the less considered a major American novelist.
The novel follows a 14-man reconnaissance platoon of infantrymen sent as the advance party for a planned invasion of a Japanese-held island in the Philippines. The squad comprises an American-style melting pot of differing class and ethnic types: a Georgian "cracker" with venereal disease he thinks water will cure, a rough refugee from Montana's strip mines, two Jews (one obnoxious, one sensitive), a Boston Irishman, an Italian-American, even a Mexican- American conscious that he will never be fully accepted by his fellow soldiers. …