Roger Lewis

Still on his feet in the twelfth round

Norman Mailer was 80 years old on 31 January 2003, so let us salute the last of all the knights. He was very famous very quickly, with The Naked and the Dead, and for nearly six decades he has poured forth rich and provocative novels, biographies, non-fiction bouts of reportage – it’s hard to know what they are any more. Fiction as documentary? Concealed memoirs? He’s certainly unstoppable. The accounts of Marilyn Monroe and Picasso show him as the critic-as-artist; the treatise on Vietnam or the moon landings, his history of the CIA and the investigation into the life and death of Lee Harvey Oswald, make him America’s Tolstoy. Mailer’s work is crammed with craziness, extravagance, grandiosity; he loves primitive and barbaric sports like bare-knuckle prize-fighting (his equivalent of Hemingway and the bulls). He is partial to violent criminals – perhaps because he would like to be one himself? Simply put, there’s no one left alive to touch him. Gore Vidal, the only other splendid outsider still surviving, is a mincing queen by comparison – and Mailer once punched him on the beezer during a chat show (or was that Truman Capote? I get confused).

This new opus, The Spooky Art, is an assemblage of interview transcripts, prefaces to reprinted novels, old essays and new interconnecting paragraphs. It ought to be a mess – the editor, J. Michael Lennon, suggests that we consult the website if we want to acquire further information about original sources and page numbers. One gets the impression that this book is like a picture produced by Titian’s studio rather than by Titian alone. The School of Mailer effect is further emphasised when you notice that much of the previously unseen material derives from a master class held at the Savoy Hotel, of all unlikely venues, in February last year.

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