Writing Norman Mailer's obituary is something like writing the obituaries of five or six very different people all at once. He began his long career with a bulky, partly autobiographical novel about World War II. That book, "The Naked and the Dead" made him famous in 1948—he was 25—and after that he was never not bathed in celebrity's spotlight. The novels kept coming ("Barbary Shore," "The Deer Park"). So did the essays, the plays, the movies, the nonfiction novels and the prizes that come to a writer who is—and there truly is no point debating this now, is there?—one of the very greatest authors of his time.
Of course, American writers do not claim the spotlight merely for being writers, at least not for long, and the contents of Mailer's fame was a dog's breakfast. He was famous for slugging Gore Vidal, famous for stabbing his second wife Adele Morales (one of his wives—he had six), famous for negotiating the release from prison of a man named Jack Henry Abbott who hardly breathed the air of freedom before he had killed another man. The salient point here is that while Mailer eventually became famous merely for being famous—the most damaging kind of fame—it never derailed him. He barreled on, writing on every conceivable subject (Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jesus Christ, Marilyn Monroe, Adolf Hitler) and in every conceivable genre, from noir potboiler to historical epic. The writing was sometimes beautiful, sometimes abysmal—often on the same page. But it was never predictable or tedious. And he never stopped trying. At his death—Friday, Nov. 9, acute renal failure, Mt. Sinai Hospital, New York City, at age 84—he was working on a sequel to his last novel, "The Castle in the Forest," a fictional account of the young Hitler, while his most recent work, "On God," a collection of dialogues on religion, had barely arrived in book stores.
Suffice it to say that no writer—hell, nobody—was ever more ambitious: he once ran for mayor of New York on a ticket whose slogan was: "Vote the Rascals In." Certainly no writer ever tested the limits of outsized ambition more often than Mailer did. To be ambitious in this way means that one must be willing to fall on one's face, and from a very great height, and Mailer's literary stumbles are a matter of record. He was no Flaubert, grinding away at the perfect book. He went at a subject, whether it was graffiti or the CIA, said what he could as best he knew how, and moved on. It was a mark of his mercurial intelligence that he could manage to be interesting even when he was spouting nonsense.
A reader, even an ardent fan, eventually chose one Mailer among the many to cherish. There are still people—all right, men—who will buttonhole you late at night when the bar is about to close and preach the glories of "The Naked and the Dead" as the greatest war novel ever written. "Ancient Evenings," his mammoth novel of ancient Egypt, likewise has its diehard fans. So does "Why Are We in Vietnam?," a novel that not once, past the title, mentions Vietnam. But finally-and the temptation to play the fair-minded, evenhanded critic is here almost overpowering, when really it's just preference talking—there is no getting around his two most magnificent works of nonfiction: "The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song," two works on which the Pulitzer committee got it dead right when it came time to hand out awards.
Willie Morris got fired, at least in part, because as editor of Harper's, he devoted one entire issue to "The Armies of the Night," Mailer's account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Time has proved that Morris knew exactly what he was doing. Writing in the third person, Mailer thrust himself into the story. We are constantly aware of him in the midst of everything that transpires. And yet, we are perfectly aware, because as self-involved as he was, he was also tuning-fork sensitive to everything going on around him. The book is an emotional and intellectual journey to the heart of the '60s, with everything that was good and bad about that time trapped like lucent amber right there before you on the page.
"Armies of the Night" was a baroque masterpiece, a word man's lush holiday. "The Executioner's Song," Mailer's massive account of the life and death of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, is that early book's counterweight: quiet, almost sedate, magisterial. You have the feeling, on page after page, that the people in this story are doing the telling, that there is no narrator, no guiding intelligence that sees it all whole. For pages at a time, Mailer vanishes. Or so it seems while you're reading. Only in recollection does the sum of his achievement become clear, because nothing with this kind of inexorable velocity happens by chance.
Somehow, Mailer manages in this book to perfectly attune his writing to the thoughts and sensations of the characters he is writing about: he is their channeler, as in this passage right after Gary gets out of prison at the beginning of the book: "In the mountains, the snow was iron gray and purple in the hollows, and glowed like gold on every slope that faced the sun. The clouds over the mountains were lifting with the light. Brenda took a good look into his eyes and felt full of sadness again. His eyes had the expression of rabbits she had flushed, scared-rabbit was the common expression, but she had looked into those eyes of scared rabbits and they were calm and tender and kind of curious. They did not know what would happen next."
So there is no summing up Mailer. There is only contending with him, with what he wrote, the bad and the beautiful and everything in between. He would have had it no other way—you're paying attention to me, right? You can almost hear him laugh. He delighted in contradiction, but really he couldn't help it. It was his genius: to take chances, to change selves, to shuck one identity for another. Every time you thought you had him pegged, he popped out of another hole. There was just no telling. He was brave, he was bold … and he did the crossword puzzle every morning-in pencil. Go figure. But give him the last word on that, on everything, really, from the forward he wrote to an anthology of his own work: "There are only three words to cover this equation: nobody is perfect."