When a biography opens with an account of its subject making a drunken fool of himself at his 50th birthday party, readers may wonder if the author has an axe to grind. On the contrary, Mary Dearborn views America's biggest Bad Boy novelist with the same judicious eye she trained on Henry Miller in The Happiest Man Alive
, candidly discussing faults without feeling obliged to lambaste their possessor. In the case of Norman Mailer, Dearborn's book is less notable for the biographical facts all solidly laid out--but no differently or better than in previous biographies--than for her intelligent understanding of his significance in postwar American culture. Novels like The Naked and the Dead
(published in 1948, when Mailer was just 25) are not as important, in Dearborn's view, as such later works as The Armies of the Night
(1968) and The Executioner's Song
(1979), in which Mailer blurred the line between fact and fiction--using himself as a character to illustrate central issues in American society. Even those who regret the erasure of boundaries fencing off private from public life must admit this is a central development of our time, and Mailer played a key role in making it intellectually respectable--or at least defensible. The many wives, the drunken brawls, the literary feuds are less interesting, though Dearborn conscientiously covers them all. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Setting a standard for lucidity and general competence that even Mailer's authorized biographer will be hard pressed to reach, Dearborn's unauthorized life tells how the writer of The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song "ran with his celebrity as far as he could." Dearborn, who has also written biographies of Henry Miller and Louise Bryant, recounts Mailer's early years at Harvard, his first success in his 20s with The Naked and the Dead and his rough and tumble later years as one of the keenest of the New Journalism, nonfiction novelists. There is clearly much very juicy material to be covered here, and Dearborn does it well. She is devastating in her treatment of Mailer's violent alcoholic excesses, painting an unforgettable portrait of the author on the night he stabbed his wife: one minute picking a fight with George Plimpton on the street, the next frightening the guests at his party and finally, inexplicably, almost killing her. Dearborn artfully explicates some of Mailer's more elusive texts, such as the famous passage in his essay "The White Negro" in which he apparently advocates the killing of 50-year-old shopkeepers for the sheer therapeutic effect of it. And she is careful in narrating the stories of Mailer's seemingly endless marriages and affairs. In the end, Dearborn sees her subject, now 76 and weather-beaten, as the macho man who plays by his rulesAand will always do almost anything for the right price. Comfortable, finally, with his bank accounts, Mailer could defend the critical beating his book on Marilyn Monroe received in 1974 by contending, "I'm not going to sit here and bleed for the American public when the book was conceived by all in the first place as a project that would ideally make money." 38 pages of illustrations not seen by PW. (Oct.)
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