The Novel Was All

Article excerpt

NORMAN MAILER HAD ONLY ONE SALARIED JOB. He served as a clerk, rifleman and cook in the U.S. Army. It was, he said, the worst experience of his life and the best. After his discharge, he wrote a novel based on his two years in the army. It appeared when he was twenty-five and rocketed to number one on the Times best seller list on June 20,1948. Although The Naked and the Dead was his only book to reach number one, ten more of his books made the list, including The Castle in the Forest, published a week before his eighty-fourth birthday. No other writer of Mailer's generation had best sellers in each of six consecutive decades.

Norman was biologically a writer. He was also a man of action--making movies, running for mayor of New York, lecturing at colleges, serving as an unpaid (and usually unheeded) advisor to presidents, launching the Village Voice, protesting American imperialism--but except for his profound family commitments, all these activities were in liege to his writing. The "assorted bravos of the media and the literary world," as he referred to them in The Armies of the Night, criticized him for making movies, debating feminists, boxing on the Cavett Show and getting into scrapes at cocktail parties, never entirely grasping his need to mix it up, get a black eye perhaps, so he could return, enriched, exhausted, chastened, to his monkish life. "I'm an old club fighter," he would say, "I get mad when you miss."

As Joan Didion once pointed out, Norman was "a great and obsessed stylist, a writer to whom the shape of a sentence is the story." He sounded out, again and again, every sentence he wrote. In his Provincetown study, there are bookcases filled with etymological dictionaries and handbooks, some of them almost clawed to pieces. …