Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tough Guys Don't Die

(Mailer's death cab. Thanks to MP in P-town.)

Norman Mailer died yesterday and with him, a great chunk of literary machismo. And I mean that in the most fawning way possible. Even into his 80s he was taking on the likes of God and NYTimes book deity Michiko Kakutani. After my recent trip to Utah, I'm currently re-reading Executioner's Song, which is simply badass. Tough Guys Don't Dance is my favorite though--a noir novel set in Provincetown, where Mailer lived in a pretty brick box on the Bay. I lived there too, for a little while after college, and used to run into Mailer at Michael Shays, the restaurant where I waitressed and barkept. A couple of line cooks there talked about the crazy parties Mailer's son used to throw at the house. About how they used to break in when they were underage specifically to raid Mailer's impressive liquor cabinet. If I'm remembering correctly, the cooks were fascinated by the amount of naked-lady art in Mailer's house and were almost caught by him once, as they stood with bottles of his stolen tequila stuffed into their backpacks, transfixed by a titillating sculpture in his front hall.

Here's the AP article from the Eastern Iowa Gazette, with some extra local flavor in the last few paragraphs. My reporter friend Adam called yesterday, remembering something I'd told him once about Mailer and quoted me on it for the paper. It's pretty awesome and hilarious that, after all the famous writers and intellectuals they talk to about Mailer, in the local version of the story, I get the final word. I'm glad. The way a man tips says a lot about that man, which is why Mailer will always be A-OK in my book.

Author Norman Mailer dies at 84
NEW YORK (AP) — Norman Mailer, the pugnacious prince of American letters who for decades reigned as the country’s literary conscience and provocateur with such books as “The Naked and the Dead” and “The Executioner’s Song,” has died at the age of 84.
Mailer died Saturday of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital, J. Michael Lennon, the author’s literary executor and biographer, said.
“He was a great American voice,” said a tearful Joan Didion, author of “The Year of Magical Thinking” and other works, struggling for words upon learning of Mailer’s death.
From his classic debut novel to such masterworks of literary journalism as “The Armies of the Night,” the twotime Pulitzer Prize winner always got credit for insight, passion and originality.
Some of his works were highly praised, some panned, but none was pronounced the Great American Novel that seemed to be his life quest from the time he soared to the top as a brash 25-year-old “enfant terrible.” Mailer built and nurtured an image over the years as bellicose, street-wise and high-living. He drank, fought, smoked pot, married six times and stabbed his second wife, almost fatally, during a drunken party.
He had nine children, made a quixotic bid to become mayor of New York City on a “left conservative” platform, produced five forgettable films, dabbled in journalism, flew gliders, challenged professional boxers, was banned from a Manhattan YWHA for reciting obscene poetry, feuded publicly with writer Gore Vidal and crusaded against women’s liberation.
Mailer had numerous minor run-ins with the law, usually for being drunk or disorderly, but was also jailed briefly during the Pentagon protests in the late 1960s. While directing the film “Maidstone” in 1968, the self-described “old club fighter” punched actor Lane Smith, breaking his jaw, and bit actor Rip Torn’s ear in another scuffle.
But as Newsweek reviewer Raymond Sokolov said in 1968, “In the end, it is the writing that will count.” Mailer, he wrote, possessed “a superb natural style that does not crack under the pressures he puts upon it, a talent for narrative and characters with real blood streams and nervous systems, a great openness and eagerness for experience, a sense of urgency about the need to test thought and character in the crucible of a difficult era.” Norman Mailer was born Jan. 31, 1923, in Long Branch, N.J. His father, Isaac, a South Africa-born accountant, and mother, Fanny, who ran a housekeeping and nursing agency, soon moved to Brooklyn.
Mailer earned an engineering science degree in 1943 from Harvard University, where he decided to become a writer, and was soon drafted into the Army. Sent to the Philippines as an infantryman, he saw enough of soldiering to provide a basis for his first book, “The Naked and the Dead,” published in 1948 while he was a postgraduate student in Paris.
The book became a best seller, and Mailer returned home to find himself anointed the new Hemingway, Dos Passos and Melville.
Buoyed by instant literary celebrity, Mailer embraced the early 1950s counterculture, defining “hip” in his essay “The White Negro,” allying himself with Beat Generation gurus Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and writing social and political commentary for the Village Voice, which he helped found. He also churned out two more novels, “Barbary Shore” (1951) and “Deer Park” (1955), neither embraced kindly by readers or critics.
Mailer turned reporter to cover the 1960 Democratic Party convention for Esquire and later claimed, with typical hubris, that his piece, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” had made the difference in John Kennedy’s razor-thin margin of victory over Republican Richard Nixon.
While Life magazine called his next book, “An American Dream” (1965), “the big comeback of Norman Mailer,” the author-journalist was chronicling major events of the day: an anti-war march on Washington, the 1968 political conventions, the Ali-Patterson fight, an Apollo moon shot.
His 1968 account of the peace march on the Pentagon, “The Armies of the Night,” won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was listed in the top 20 on a 1999 New York University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the century.
When he covered the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago for Harper’s Magazine, Mailer was torn between keeping to a tight deadline or joining the anti-war protests that led to a violent police crackdown. “I was in a moral quandary. I didn’t know if I was being scared or being professional,” he later testified in the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven.
Jorge Herralde, editor of Mailer’s Spanish publishers, Anagrama, said Saturday that Mailer was a titan of literature who, like Kafka, was never awarded a Nobel Prize. “He surely had too excessive a profile for that award,” Herralde said.
Mailer’s personal life was as turbulent as the times in which he lived. In 1960, at a party at his Brooklyn Heights home, he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a knife. She declined to press charges, and it was not until 1997 that she revealed in her memoir how close she had come to dying.
His other wives were: Beatrice Silverman, Lady Jeanne Campbell, Beverly Bentley, Carol Stevens and Norris Church. He had five daughters, three sons and a stepson.
“He had such a compendious vision of what it meant to be alive. He had serious opinions on everything there was to have an opinion on, and everything he had was so original,” friend William Kennedy, author of “Ironweed,” said.
Mailer spoke in Iowa City at least twice in the 1990s, both times at events sponsored by the UI Writer’s Workshop.
Susan McCarty, a 30-yearold Iowa City native who now works for a publishing company in town, regularly waited on Mailer at a restaurant on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where she lived after she graduated from college.
“Every Friday he would come in for the prime rib special and I’d serve him a whisky sour and a prime rib,” she said.
People at the restaurant left him alone, but everyone recognized him. “You couldn’t help — when he walked down the street or walked into the restaurant — but look at him,” McCarty said. “He commanded everyone’s attention.” She said they didn’t have any long chats while she was taking his orders or bringing his drinks, but he was quiet, unassuming and kind to her.
“He was a great tipper,” she said.
In “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), Mailer promised to write the greatest novel yet, but later conceded he had not. Among other notable works: “Cannibals and Christians” (1966); “Why Are We in Vietnam?” (1967); and “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” (1968).
“The Executioner’s Song” (1979), an epic account of the life and death of petty criminal Gary Gilmore, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
“Ancient Evenings” (1983), a novel of ancient Egypt that took 11 years to complete, was critically panned.


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