The book won the pugnacious Mailer a Pulitzer Prize and solidified his status as the literary lion of American letters. The old lion died yesterday of kidney failure. He was 84 years old.
Mailer was an artist of extremes – willing to knock head with anyone (he was involved in many a fistfight in his day) and who boldly jumped from novelist, to movie maker, to non-fiction author to playwright to actor.
“The Executioner’s Song” leads a list of amazing books written by Mailer including “The Naked and the Dead” (1948), “An American Dream” (1965), and “The Armies of the Night” (1968). But Mailer also left behind a library of mediocre prose including “
That is the paradox of Mailer. Consider this. Despite a literary career that spans nearly six decades, Mailer never created the iconic fictional character – the larger than life personae. While Hemingway has Nick Adams, F. Scott Fitzgerald Jay Gatsby, and John Updike Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Mailer has… well, no one.
As the Boston Globe astutely pointed out: “`Norman Mailer’ was Mr. Mailer's own most enduring creation: a roisterous, rebellious, shameless figure, at once seer and clown, man of letters and man of action, who sought in his writing to grab hold of very nearly all of contemporary American experience and make it his own.”
I have mixed feelings about Mailer’s work. I’m unabashedly an admirer of “The Executioner’s Song” and “The American Dream,” but I had a mixed (although a mostly positive) take on “The Naked and the Dead” (I found the point of view jumpy and the cast of characters rather cliché). “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (1984) could have been better if written by Robert B. Parker and “The Gospel According to the Son” was so trite and unimaginative that I didn’t finish it.
Yet I’m a fan of Mailer. I was taken in by his “Norman Mailer” character. He was fearless, a courageous artist. A growling bear of a man who took the literary baton from Hemingway (who he admired). A self-appointed member of literary royalty.
While he had flaws – he also had moments of staggering genius. Those are the moments we will all miss. It’s been a sad year for literary giants – first Kurt Vonnegut and now Mailer.
So farewell, Lord Mailer. Sleep well.
And, dear reader, do yourself a favor when you’re in your local bookstore: Buy a copy of “The Executioner’s Song.”