Mailer’s Ghost

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Norman Mailer is dead at 84. Demosthenes, when told of the death of Alexander the Great, said it could not be – for else the world would stink of the corpse. One might say something similar about Mailer and the world of letters. If egos rather than flesh stank, then surely we would have smelled Norman’s departure before it made the news. The man’s astounding self-regard was on parade for the near six decades of his public life.

He was probably the greatest killer of trees in our time, except for Isaac Asimov. His product, generally, was both prolix and second-rate. And most of the exceptions were third or fourth-rate. That he was so lionized bespeaks the lionizers’ poor taste, nothing more.

Then there is the matter ofJack Henry Abbott and the long forgotten waiter he killed, thanks to Norman’s getting Abbott sprung from prison. That should have been the last we heard of Norman. Alas, he carried on for another 25-plus years.

It has been a long-held belief of mine that even the worst poseurs will express a deep truth once in their lives. This was so of Norman. “A man must drink until he finds the truth,” he told Playboy magazine an eon or so ago. Then, recently, he came up with another: “1 think the novel is on the way out,” he said at a National Book Awards ceremony in 2005. On the other hand, perhaps this latter observation is too obvious to be rated profound.

Mailer’s humor and his willingness to flout convention were sometimes admirable. His opposition to the war in Vietnam was rooted in a feeling for his fellow human beings that I certainly would not deny. But his reputation stands or falls as man of letters, an artist. He was already unread; in ten years he will be completely forgotten.

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