Critical discussions of Norman Mailer have a way of avoiding the questions we usually ask of a serious writer. Almost invariably there is much talk about Mailer the public personality and Mailer the would-be philosopher, but very little on the aesthetic value of his individual works. This is true even when the work in question is judged to be successful. Witness the reception of The Armies of the Night ( 1968), Mailer's account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Even Mailer's most hostile critics were willing to acknowledge that Armies was a work of great importance, his one book that would almost surely last. But Mailer's friends and foes alike were reluctant to examine the work itself to explain his achievement. There was praise for Mailer's ironic self-portrait and speculation on the emerging form of the "nonfiction novel," but no one was very eager to characterize the actual structure of Armies. I don't think the problem is academic. Here we have a book which comes to us in two radically different parts, one disguised as a "novel," the other as a "history." What is the relationship between the two parts? If Armies is a work of real distinction—if it is more than a "report" on Mailer's role in a peace demonstration—then surely something must be made of its unusual narrative structure.
I am suggesting that we should begin to look at Mailer's books with the close attention we reserve for such contemporaries as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.Unless we do so, we will never do justice to Mailer's artistic achievement. Because Armies is so central to that achievement, we____________________