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Mailer, quintessential and controversial

The scene: Diefendorf Hall on the South Campus of the University at Buffalo.

The time: the mid-1960s, the still-troublesome American period during which Norman Mailer was, without question, our greatest literary figure -- so much so that his death Saturday at age 84 leaves him one of the crucial American literary figures of the last century.

The '60s were a great literary decade that included Burroughs, Bellow, Salinger, McCarthy, Roth, Kesey, Paley, Heller, Styron and Plath among many others -- but no writer attracted attention and intellectual energy the way Mailer did.

And that, on this night at UB, was the problem. He was there to read from the extraordinary novel that eventually turned into "Why Are We in Vietnam?"

But the crowd wouldn't let him. They weren't there for Norman Mailer the writer, they were there for Norman Mailer the symbol, the spokesman for rebellion, drugs, violence, alcohol and the Bohemian life. They were there to see the embodiment of transcendental disobedience.
The circus had come to town -- or at least the literary version of it. It was all quite wondrously nuts, a firsthand meeting of a literary giant with the hilarious unruliness that his mere presence unleashed in the world.

First there was the crying baby who disrupted things. "My dearest critic," said Mailer, who ended his life the father of eight.

Then there was the bald fellow who pronounced himself an alumnus that very week of Buffalo Psychiatric Center who stood up and filibustered on life force matters.

It was a kind of public disorder often repeated with Mailer in the middle, whether on "The Dick Cavett Show" with Gore Vidal, or a panel on what was called at the time "Women's Lib" with Germaine Greer, or on the hustings campaigning for mayor of New York.

Mailer, among many other things, must be understood as very much a public performer, even more so than Dickens was in the 19th century when he publicly read his works or functioned as an actor.

Mailer relished performing -- as provocateur, buffoon, the intellectual equivalent of a Borscht Belt tummler in charge of everyone's adrenaline (he was a Brooklyn boy, after all).

And, with characteristic candor, which could often be jaw-dropping, he always admitted how much applause pleased him. His dissident Vietnam-era essay collection "Cannibals and Christians" was dedicated to "Lyndon B. Johnson, whose name inspired young men to cheer for me in public."

Has there even been a writer to so passionately document his most transient glories and ignominies? Has there ever been a writer so apparently immune to others' scorn of his penchant for seeing the universe as a tiny extension of himself?

Mark Shechner, a frequent Buffalo News contributor, former UB English Department chairman and the author of "After the Revolution" about 20th century Jewish American writers, said Mailer "brought EGO to literature in a big way, in capital letters. Though American literature has always teemed with egotists, like Ernest Hemingway, whom Mailer so revered and tried to emulate, he pioneered the self as the great subject, the great national project, a thing as big as the nation itself."

Fortunately for Mailer, he had a sense of humor as big as his ego and let everyone know how absurd he knew his pugnacious self-regard to be. "He managed to connect his own personal brand of insanity to the various insanities he was living through."

There was, of course, trouble there. It was bad enough that he stabbed his first wife, Adele, with a penknife (she refused to press charges), but to have written a poem decades later that declared "as long as you use the knife, there's some love left" was appalling enough to get his sometime friend Vidal to compare him at one point to Charles Manson.

Vidal and Mailer ended up where they started in the '40s -- literary compadres with much mutual affection.

Even worse, in probably the worst controversy of his tumultuous life, Mailer was successful in getting Jack Henry Abbott released from prison on the grounds of his writing talent, only to have Abbott, weeks later, senselessly kill a cafe counterman. Mailer wasn't the first writer to espouse a prisoner's cause, but no other writer's crusade ended quite so quickly and so awfully.

How he scores in the great sweepstakes of history will take a while to figure, but, provisionally, the verdict is that the modest Mailer has always -- always trumped the blunderbuss contriver of big doorstop novels like "Ancient Evenings," "Harlot's Ghost" and perhaps even his career-making but now seldom-read "The Naked and the Dead."

It was the journalist and critic who so brilliantly coursed through the literary electricity of his own time that seems likely to charge up the future.

In other words, it's the ground-breaking exhibitionist of "Advertisements for Myself," "The Presidential Papers," "Cannibals and Christians," "Miami and the Siege of Chicago," "The Armies of the Night," the short novel "Why Are We In Vietnam?" and the plain-style journalism of "The Executioner's Song" that stands to prevail over the big, big offerings to the altar of Great American Novelhood.

Let there be some modesty in his efforts that he blazed across his literary time. Let him lust for immortality, and he might as well have been blubbering into the Provincetown sea winds about a white whale.

The author of "Harlot's Ghost" and "Ancient Evenings" may well sink to the bottom and never be missed.

His era's great disorderly journalistic witness may be read in America as long as there are still Americans who remember how.


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