It’s safe to say, now, that Norman Mailer did not become the heavyweight champion of fiction — safe to say because he’s no longer around to take a swing at you with his cane. Even in his last year, Mailer would vigorously defend his reputation if he heard something he didn’t like. After this magazine recently published an innocuous chart chronicling his many highly entertaining feuds, he called to deliver a loud, hearing-challenged verbal pummeling. But, though he doubtless wouldn’t fully concede the point, even he must have realized that his greatest work was not fiction.
Partly, this was because his journalism was so transcendent. The Executioner’s Song is richer and deeper than its predecessor, In Cold Blood, and any of its many successors. Then there is Armies of the Night, his sui generis book about the 1967 march on the Pentagon which is, in its psychological complexity, its multifaceted ironies, and its deep engagement with the issues of its moment, the only “nonfiction novel” truly worthy of the name.
Of course, the comic anti-hero of that book — the overweening narcissist who never met a microphone he didn’t like, who was simultaneously grandiose and self-critical — went by the name of “Norman Mailer,” and he’s as fascinating a creation as a town full of Zuckermans. In fact, as an artist, Mailer’s accomplishment has as much to do with that of Andy Warhol as with his fellow novelists, in the sense that a large part of his artwork was his existence in the world.
But where Warhol emptied his persona of any human agency, achieving a kind of shimmering weightlessness, Mailer always revealed the human mechanics that drove him. They were co-inventors of modern fame, two sides of a coin. Mailer’s was not always a beautiful picture — in fact, it was often spectacularly weird, and idiosyncratic, and as liable to earn him ridicule as praise. But it got at the kind of human truth that many a novelist — heavyweight or otherwise — can only dream of uncovering. And he had the courage (one of his favorite words) to bring it forth. —John Homans