Charles Petzold

Norman Mailer, 1923–2007

November 11, 2007
New York, N.Y.

In the late 60's and early 70's, Norman Mailer was a regular on TV talk shows like The Tonight Show, The Dick Cavett Show, and Firing Line, where he and Bill Buckley seemed to intensify each other's stutters. I never really liked Mailer's public persona — brash, swaggering, misogynist — and I could never imagine him actually writing, and taking the time to polish sentences.

I am certain that the first Mailer book I read was The Armies of the Night (1968), his famous "History as a Novel; the Novel as History." (The paperback was published December 1968, and my copy says "Third printing," so I probably bought it in 1969.) The Armies of the Night is about the October 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon, in which a character named Norman Mailer — like Caesar, Mailer wrote of himself in the third person — takes center stage.

I remember reading a library copy of Mailer's WWII novel The Naked and the Dead (1948) and on many occasions since I wish I had invested in a copy of my own, because several scenes are still vivid in my memory and someday I'd like to find them and re-read them. In one scene, the soldiers are enduring a heavy rain, and a General comes through on a jeep, enduring the rain himself, and there arises from this common plight such a empathy of feeling between the foot soldiers and the General, that an incredible sense of well-being is conveyed. (I know this sounds strange — that's why I'm interested in trying to find the passage again.) Another scene involves a soldier coming upon a dead body on the battlefield, noticing some gold teeth, looking around to make sure no-one is watching, and then bringing his heavy boot down.

I know I also read some of Mailer's other early novels, and the vulgar and amphetamined Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a novel intended to convey more of the psychology of American violence rather than specific foreign-policy decisions, and in which Vietnam isn't actually mentioned until the last sentence, which, to the best of my recollection, is "Vietnam, hot damn."

I believe the last Mailer book I read was The Executioner's Song (1979). (In pencil in the inside back cover, I indicated that I purchased the book on 9/21/79 and finished its 1,056 pages on 9/25/79.) This is a book that should not have worked. The book was based largely on interviews assembled by Lawrence Schiller before Mailer ever got involved with the project, and the subject matter of these interviews was the life and execution of Gary Gilmore. For this project Mailer the consummate egoist was able to disappear into the material to fashion it into an extraordinary vivid and moving tragedy for our times, told in a deceptively simple style that invokes the rhythms and voices of the participants.

Can you tell this isn't going to turn out well?