In the late 60's and early 70's, Norman Mailer was a regular on TV talk shows like The Tonight Show, The Dick Cavett Show, and Firing Line, where he and Bill Buckley seemed to intensify each other's stutters. I never really liked Mailer's public persona — brash, swaggering, misogynist — and I could never imagine him actually writing, and taking the time to polish sentences.
I am certain that the first Mailer book I read was The Armies of the Night (1968), his famous "History as a Novel; the Novel as History." (The paperback was published December 1968, and my copy says "Third printing," so I probably bought it in 1969.) The Armies of the Night is about the October 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon, in which a character named Norman Mailer — like Caesar, Mailer wrote of himself in the third person — takes center stage.
All right, let us look into his mind. It has been burned out by the gouts of bourbon he has taken into himself the night before (in fact, one of the reasons he detests napalm is that he assumes its effect on the countryside is comparable to the ravages of booze on the better foliage of his brain) however, one can make too much of a hangover, these are comic profits which should perhaps be reinvested—his headache is in truth not thunderous so much as definite and ineradicable until late afternoon, when whiskey wastes half-cleared, he will feel legitimized to take another drink. In the meantime, he must stir his stupefied message center into sufficient activity to give him a mind to meet the minds he would encounter this day, for this day, Friday, was—you will recall—the occasion on which he would lend the dubious substance of his name to those young men brave enough, idealistic enough, (and doubtless vegetarian enough!) to give their draft cards back to the government on the steps of the Department of Justice. Mailer detested the thought of getting through the upcoming hours.
(Part II, Chapter 2)
I remember reading a library copy of Mailer's WWII novel The Naked and the Dead (1948) and on many occasions since I wish I had invested in a copy of my own, because several scenes are still vivid in my memory and someday I'd like to find them and re-read them. In one scene, the soldiers are enduring a heavy rain, and a General comes through on a jeep, enduring the rain himself, and there arises from this common plight such a empathy of feeling between the foot soldiers and the General, that an incredible sense of well-being is conveyed. (I know this sounds strange — that's why I'm interested in trying to find the passage again.) Another scene involves a soldier coming upon a dead body on the battlefield, noticing some gold teeth, looking around to make sure no-one is watching, and then bringing his heavy boot down.
I know I also read some of Mailer's other early novels, and the vulgar and amphetamined Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a novel intended to convey more of the psychology of American violence rather than specific foreign-policy decisions, and in which Vietnam isn't actually mentioned until the last sentence, which, to the best of my recollection, is "Vietnam, hot damn."
I believe the last Mailer book I read was The Executioner's Song (1979). (In pencil in the inside back cover, I indicated that I purchased the book on 9/21/79 and finished its 1,056 pages on 9/25/79.) This is a book that should not have worked. The book was based largely on interviews assembled by Lawrence Schiller before Mailer ever got involved with the project, and the subject matter of these interviews was the life and execution of Gary Gilmore. For this project Mailer the consummate egoist was able to disappear into the material to fashion it into an extraordinary vivid and moving tragedy for our times, told in a deceptively simple style that invokes the rhythms and voices of the participants.
Gary came out of the bathroom, and asked did he still have the gun. Craig said, Yeah. Gary asked to borrow it back. Plus a few shells. "Oh, yeah," said Craig. "Well, it's yours, I'll give it to you." Added, "Why do you want it?" Gary didn't give any answer. Finally he said, "I'd like it." Craig didn't exactly have a good feeling as he passed the shells. Gary seemed awful emotionless. "Gary, I can't refuse you," Craig said, "it's your gun," but he took a good last look. It was a gold-trigger Browning Automatic with a black metal barrel, nice wood handle. (p. 221)
Can you tell this isn't going to turn out well?