American journalist and novelist Norman Mailer died of renal failure in New York City today. I'm still trying to sort my impressions about this news.
I first discovered Mailer while I was a freshman in college. I had read about The Armies of the Night in a magazine article, and being young and flushed with idealism and liberalism, I bought a copy at a second-hand bookstore and immersed myself in a world that I had only seen in The Wonder Years. Needless to say, it was a side of that world that I had never known, but I was drawn in by Mailer's unique writing style, even if I didn't fully comprehend the politics behind the narrative. I've since grown out of my youthful liberalism.
I moved on to The American Dream, a dark portrait of our country that I still haven't figured out. What mattered was that Mailer wielded words the way Monet or Picasso wielded a brush, sometimes with similarly striking results. While in Italy, I read some of Ancient Evenings. I tried to read Of a Fire on the Moon during the summer I spent reading about the space program, but the contrast with the no-nonsense technical histories stymied me and I had to put it down. Likewise, I've never been able to get very far into The Prisoner of Sex, which is a pity, because I believe that in this instance, Mailer and I are in agreement. He seems not to be a fan of the feminists (nor they of him), but alas, here his unique style defeats me.
Possibly my favorite Mailer book is Oswald's Ghost, a remarkable look into the life and mind of a killer. Rather than examine bullet theories and grassy knolls, Mailer delves into Lee Harvey Oswald's history to make the case that he did indeed kill Kennedy and acted alone.
In his historical romances about WWII, Herman Wouk writes of Churchill complimenting Rommel with the words, "Across the gulf of war, I salute a great general." Norman Mailer at once entertained me with his narratives, enthralled me with his style, and disgusted me with his politics. He probably would have been amused by that, and appreciated it. Across the gulf of ideology, I salute a great writer.
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