Norman Mailer is a most irritating author to write about. His public image is entirely too powerful and unattractive; and his ideas, as stated in his essays, are often nonsensical (his mystique of the apocalyptic orgasm or of the spiritual significance of cancer) and sometimes intolerable (his glorification of Hip criminality). The result is that people have not taken his recent novels seriously enough. Since his image is by now better known than his novels, people like the Sunday Times reviewer of Why Are We in Vietnam? are apt to write him off as belonging more to the history of publicity than to the history of literature. And the success of his political writings since the novels— Miami and the Siege of Chicago and Armies of the Night ( 1968)—has only made people say he is better as journalist than novelist.
Yet if we forget the public image and read through the five novels, we find that Mailer's ideas are fruitful for his fiction and that he has as much artistic integrity as anyone writing today. First of all he has refused to capitalize on the spectacular success of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead ( 1948). Having at twenty-five triumphed in the received realistic style of American social-consciousness fiction, Mailer has been working ever since at finding a new style. It was not until 1965, the year American Dream came out in book form, and 1967, the year of Why Are We in Vietnam?, that he finally broke through to a style new enough to offend many of the reviewers.
"The realistic literature," said Mailer in a paper of 1965, "had____________________