So old man Mailer died this weekend at 84. He had a good long life.
I met him once, when I was working at Rolling Stone. RS head honcho Jann Wenner had rented out a swank Midtown Manhattan restaurant for a luncheon in honor of the aging ‘enfant terrible’ of American letters, whose “Harlot’s Ghost” (1991) was being serialized in the magazine. The very upscale event was attended by Rolling Stone editors, staffers and advertisers, who milled around holding glasses of Chardonnay, awaiting the great man’s arrival. He was late, and we on the business side of things were concerned that our advertiser attendees might have to get back to their media buying and planning before our star had shown. But eventually the doors swung wide, and as a buzz went up around the room, a short, pudgy, white-haired Norman Mailer came stumbling in — all ego and alcohol, a crowd of sycophants fawning around him.
Jann embraced him, smiled for our in-house photographer, and led him into the reception. Jann adored Mailer, I think, because of his notoriety as a hard-drinking, fast-living, ruff-and-tumble personality, and because Tom Wolfe (another Wenner favorite) had crowned him ‘the father of new journalism,’ whatever the fug that means.
During lunch, Norman waddled up to the podium, and delivered a fairly incoherent self-referential talk, praising Rolling Stone and plugging, naturally enough, “Harlot.”
Looking back, the event was a lot like his career: a lot of hoopla and anticipation, followed by a meager output that left one with a lingering aftertaste of longing for something more.
Mailer typified those writers who are more remarkable for their celebrity than their oeuvre. Best known for his first book, “The Naked and the Dead,” a rambling account of World War II that was loosely based on his own experience in the South Pacific. The “Naked and the Dead” was deemed to be “the best novel yet about World War II,” according to Time Magazine. For my money, I prefer Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter House Five” or even Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” — both more readable and humorous and insightful than “NATD,” which like most of Mailer’s succeeding work would have benefited from more aggressive editing.
Despite his failure to live up to his early hype, Mailer did shake up the literary establishment. And for that, along with his liberal sensibilites, I salute him.