Though Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian British philosopher, promoted the Great Men Theory of History (the idea that the sweep of human events is governed by exceptional human beings), it was Norman Mailer who invented what might be called the Macho Men Theory of History. Broadly put, this is Mailer's sometimes great notion that history (postwar American history, in particular) is forged in some sort of Olympian smoke-filled room that's part Caesars Palace penthouse, part D.C. men's club, by scheming politicians, ruthless gangsters, brilliant CIA agents, psycho lowlifes, genius artists, gifted athletes, and whatever member of the Kennedy family happens to be in town that night. Feminists hold that politics is personal, but Mailer says politics is personalities -- driven swordsmen doing ego battle while their bored, dolled-up women sneak into rivals' beds, sometimes precipitating through their betrayals sundry assassinations, vendettas, and international incidents.
This is a wild simplification of a fascinating writer's vision, but wild simplifications (boldly and obsessively filled in) are what Mailer's career is all about, as his mammoth new retrospective goes to show. At 1,286 text-dense pages, The Time of Our Time is a crowded trophy room of more than 50 years of novels, essays, stories, manic jottings, and even a few atrociously bad poems, arranged not in the order of publication but according to the era of their subjects. Thus the book opens with "Boxing With Hemingway," based on a 1929 sparring match involving F. Scott Fitzgerald but written in 1966, and proceeds in this fashion almost to the end, from World War II (The Naked and the Dead) to the Cold War (Harlot's Ghost) to Camelot ("Superman Comes to the Supermarket") to Vietnam (The Armies of The Night) to a recent Madonna interview from Esquire, whence it abruptly wheels back to ancient times (The Gospel According to the Son). It's the timeline of guy-style history brought full circle: from Papa to the Son of God, via JFK, Castro, Oswald, and Ali. The scrappiest of Mailer's lightweight fighters is Gary Gilmore, the strip-mall sociopath of his 1979 nonfiction novel The Executioner's Song -- his coolest, least engaged, least self-promoting, and, I think, finest book.
Not that there's anything wrong with self-promotion if your personal view of history is that it's there for the taking by ballsy adventurers. Now that we use the Price Waterhouse method to assess the ambition of novels -- toting up page count, syntactical density, and big-idea quotient, then adding points for pomo ornaments such as footnotes and mock appendixes -- it's a blast to look back at ambition, Mailer-style: a cocktail of swagger, athleticism, and lung power, carbonated with the heady gases of a not-so-long-ago New York where writers had public fistfights, campaigned for office, and slumped half-smashed around the TV roundtables now owned by perfect-posture Cokie Roberts types. The first piece I opened to in The Time of Our Time (whose structure invites a start-to-finish read but whose bulk tempts one to plunge in with a steam shovel) was the light occasional essay "The Cavett Show with Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner." Reading it, a few things raised my eyebrows: that a figure like Cavett, whose mercurial ad-libs show a truly learned, subversive wit, was ever actually given a TV show; that artists such as Vidal and Mailer were guests on it; and that these non-movie stars, non-pro athletes were lavished with airtime to feud about a paragraph (Vidal had linked Mailer's misogyny to Manson's) published in The New York Review of Books!
Those were the days, the days when Mailer was "Mailer" -- the self-regarding loudmouth superhero whose star turn was The Armies of the Night, an account of 1967's eggheady march on the Pentagon as witnessed by a tipsy, pissed-off solipsist whose hung-over brain cells are wincingly sensitive to every fibrillation of the needle on the literary-fame-and-status meter. Much of the excerpt concerns Mailer's itchy fixation on Robert Lowell, the blue-blooded pacifist poet whose regal melancholy galls Mailer to his banty Brooklyn core. "One did not achieve the grandeurs of that slouch in one generation -- the grandsons of the first sons had best go through the best eating clubs at Harvard before anyone in the family could try for such elegant note." Lowell captures the crowd with a languid poetry reading, and Mailer, in reaction, rockets up and rambles obscenely in a southern accent until he and the crowd grow weary of each other.
"Mailer," the trash-talking world champeen of letters, swung a big stick that seems, looking back from the age of irony, more like big shtick; a twist on self-deprecating Jewish comedy that it's hard to believe offended so many so violently. Of course Mailer's act took time to perfect: 1948's The Naked and the Dead, which made him famous, reads like Hemingway dulled by cold pills. "He was sad again and thought of cold and lonely things like wind on a winter beach"; 1957's The White Negro, which gave Mailer street cred, is like a hermetically sealed LP filled with the jazz-fusion intellectualism ("the organic growth of Hip," "the apocalyptic orgasm") that stormed the charts when Ivy Leaguers in therapy started sneaking joints behind Ike's back. Mailer still called himself "one" at this point, argued in syllogisms, dropped Western-civ big names, and generally sounded like an earnest young thinker who'd made up his mind to go loco-berserko but hadn't yet set the date or picked an outfit.
It was JFK -- man's man, president, martyr, ghost -- who put Mailer in the show. In Kennedy and his cyclonic aftermath, Mailer's gaseous, hopped-up cultural criticism and vacant fictions of contrived depravity were able at last to take on human form. Suggesting that there's no baptism so refreshing as when the big man on campus cuffs the nerd and says, "I've seen you around, kid. You're okay" ("he had the eyes of a mountaineer . . . his coloring vivid, his manner rich," Mailer drooled of his first meeting with the demigod), he went artistically bionic from the early sixties on. The results are wildly readable, an inspired cacophony that still clangs on. Chronological excerpts from Harlot's Ghost -- Mailer's decades-spanning spy novel -- connect The Time of Our Time's historical islands with an elaborate quasi-fictional bridgework. Thus, we meet JFK's invented mistress, Modene (modeled on Judith Exner, it seems), before we even meet the candidate in Mailer's dispatch from the 1960 convention. Such backfilling tries to give the book a unity it doesn't need (it succeeds as a grand grab bag), but the Macho Men Theory of History demands no less than a definitive epic, so don't expect Mailer to give up the fight. He'll just keep pounding with a bigger hammer.