Norman Mailer, the subject of Richard Bradford’s “lively” biography, was “everything we have learnt to despise in the 21st century”, Born to Lithuanian Jewish parents in Brooklyn in 1923, he was a “spoilt mummy’s boy” with an IQ of 170 who grew into a famous writer, “puffed up with pride, arrogance and egocentricity”. Offensive statements tripped off his tongue: “a little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul”, he opined; black people are “animalistic”; women “should be kept in cages”. His behaviour was vile. Inveterately unfaithful, he married six times, and boasted of beating his wives. He stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife, narrowly missing her heart.
He punched and headbutted people at parties: “Gore Vidal was more than once upended over a buffet.” Yet none of this stopped him being lauded by critics or being handed “whopping advances” throughout his career (he died in 2007). The “intelligentsia lapped him up”, this writer who thought it admirable to “encourage the psychopath in oneself”. Mailer shot to fame in his mid-20s, when his first novel, The Naked and the Dead – which drew on his experiences as a soldier in the Pacific during the Second World War – became an instant bestseller, The first royalty cheque he cashed was for $50,000 – worth “somewhere in excess of $500,000 today”. He won a Pulitzer for his book about the Ali-Foreman showdown, The Fight. On the back of his literary success, Mailer forged an erratic public career: he twice launched unsuccessful bids to be mayor of New York; and successfully campaigned, in 1981, for the release of the convicted killer Jack Abbott, who promptly committed another murder. A “bombastic blowhard”, Mailer is the “easiest of all easy targets” for Bradford, a biographer who specialises in literary takedowns.
He was actually a far more complex and interesting figure than Bradford’s portrait suggests, In his letters, he was “attentive and sweet-natured”, and his best books (The Executioner’s Song, The Armies of the Night) are deservedly considered “American classics”. Mailer was an “obnoxious loudmouth”, But if much of what he did seems “marginally deranged”, it is “because America provoked Mailer to such outbursts”. Few writers have so intrepidly interrogated “America’s id” – or what he called “the dream life of the nation”. He deserves a better centenary “memorial” than this “perfunctory” biography.