Norman Mailer’s dream was to write the Great American Novel, but, by the time of his death at 84 last weekend, it was clear that he hadn’t succeeded.
His first and most famous novel, The Naked and the Dead, was based on his experiences of military service during the Second World War in the Pacific. It was published in 1948 when Mailer was 25 and it made him famous.
Mailer was one of several immensely talented Jewish writers – including Philip Roth and Saul Bellow – who burst onto the US literary scene in the first decades after the Second World War.
Mailer threw himself energetically into grappling with US society in all its variety and menace. In his youth, like other Jewish intellectuals of his generation, this effort was influenced by contact with the Trotskyist movement.
The Naked and the Dead is written from the perspective of a disillusioned rifleman.
A key conversation portrays the war as a clash between rival bureaucratic empires, all of which treat ordinary people as mere raw material for their machines of production and destruction.
Mailer’s follow-up, Barbary Shore (1951), is set in a Brooklyn rooming house inhabited by different kinds of leftists, ex-leftists and FBI spies, including a young woman devastated by the fact that she introduced Leon Trotsky to his Stalinist murderer.
Barbary Shore is not a successful novel and it was set on by the critics, as the veteran US Trotskyist James P Cannon put it, “like a squad of bouncers in a high-toned salon”. But the book does convey something of the atmosphere of claustrophobia and despair that many must have experienced at the height of the Cold War.
Not that despair was something that ruled Mailer’s life. He was too busy trying to demonstrate his masculinity at boxing matches and in brawls. This deeply sexist obsession with maleness and violence was undoubtedly Mailer’s most serious flaw.
He got away with a vicious attack on one of his wives and wrote a ridiculous attack on the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s.
But the same period also saw two of Mailer’s greatest literary achievements. He threw himself into the movement against the Vietnam War. The result was two books of contemporary journalism – The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 anti-war protest outside the Pentagon, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, on the 1968 presidential election.
They are ridiculously self-obsessed, constantly orbiting around Mailer’s own vast ego, with no pretence to “objective” reporting. At the same time, they are immensely powerful and vivid, sometimes moving, capturing important historical moments.
Mailer later used the same method to write about a variety of other subjects – the moon landings, Marilyn Monroe, the condemned murderer Gary Gilmore – but he never quite recovered the intensity of those books.
He wrote more novels – one, for example, that sought to trace the role of the CIA in the history of the US empire, and his last, devoted to Hitler’s childhood. Mailer never lacked ambition.
He wasn’t the kind of writer who sought to carve a tiny diamond into a perfect artefact. He painted on a large canvas, and if the brush-strokes were often a bit wonky, so be it.
Mailer described himself to ex-Trotskyist writer Christopher Hitchens as a “left conservative” and that seems about right. There were plenty of social institutions that he was incapable of challenging – most obviously the oppression of women – but he had a sharp eye for the lies of the powerful.
So, unlike some of his contemporaries, Mailer didn’t become a neoconservative. He remained a critic of US foreign policy. “Bush uses evil as a narcotic,” he said in a recent interview.
In the 1960s, at the height of Mailer’s notoriety, Philip Roth was most famous, not for political engagement, but for the comic epic of masturbation Portnoy’s Complaint.
But, more recently, after writing an extraordinary series of novels exploring contemporary America’s inner torments, he has become a powerful critic of the Bush regime. If Roth turns his great literary skills to probing deeper, the result might be the masterpiece that always eluded Mailer.