Poseur who could write

November 12, 2007 at 12:52 am (Jim D, literature, whiskey, whisky, wild man, wine, women)

“America is a hurricane, and the only people who do not hear the sound are those fortunate if incredibly stupid and smug white Protestants who live in the centre, in the serene eye of the big wind.”

The late Norman Mailer was a poseur, a charlatan, a misogynist, a wife-stabber, champion of a murderer,  and an all round arse hole (that’s asshole to you yanks): a lot of the time he wasn’t even a particularly good writer. His real role was as a sort of sub-Hemingway boozer, womaniser and (supposed) “tough guy”.

Most of his novels were garbage, with the notable exception of his 1948  World War II masterpiece The Naked and the Dead, which George Orwell considered the best book to have come out of that war. What came afterwards were mainly let-downs. He was, however, an excellent journalist and the pioneer of the “new journalism” usually associated with Tom Wolfe. And (when he wasn’t trying to be a “tough guy”), he could be a very funny guy:

According to Vanessa Thorpe in the Observer, “Only this year, as he waited to take part in a Q&A interview to be carried by Paris Review, he told how he had encountered  (Philip) Roth at a urinal during the memorial service for a mutual friend.

“The two heavyweights  discussed their shared inability to control their bladders. ‘Phil, sometimes I have to go into a telephone kiosk to pee,’ Mailer commented. ‘You just can’t wait at my age.’

“‘I know’, said Roth, ‘it’s the same with me.’

“‘Well, Mailer told Roth, 74, ‘you always were precocious’.”


The Hitch, whilst fully aware of Mailer’s shortcomings, takes a rather more forgiving view:

“But all this bravado and bullshit and delinquency, including the near-fatal stabbing of one of his wives, only seemed to increase the number of people – including the stabbed wife herself – who found fresh ways of forgiving him. Even Gore Vidal, not a professional forgiver, was once gruffly affectionate about him in my hearing. A slightly schmaltzy way of phrasing this would be to say that Norman Mailer was always somehow life-affirming, and that his justly-famous cocky grin was something that even his enemies had to envy.” 

Perhaps more surprisingly, Hitch thinks the 1991 Harlot’s Ghost was “his masterpiece.”


  1. Louise said,

    Roth and Mailer. Both may be described as 20th century heavyweights in writing but both misogynistic as hell! Pardon me if I dont raise a glass in memory of Mailer though good riddance comes to mind.

    Actually Jim, think your first paragraph aptly sums up Mailer.

  2. V said,

    I agree with both of you. Mailer was a misogynist and his best work was his journalism and the brilliant Naked and the Dead. Every American war film has Naked and Dead as a sort of template.

    Roth, I personally think, is a more intriguing figure – sexist yes, misogynist not sure. Roth has also been the most consistantly brilliant and inventive writer of the late 20th century.

  3. Jim Denham said,

    …and I agree with both of *you* (Louise: we can’t go on like this); Roth is, I think, clearly the greater writer, and some of his more recent stuff – ‘Human Stain’, ‘American Pastoral’ and ‘The Plot Against America’, is truly great writing by *any* standards.

  4. redmaria said,

    What about Portnoy’s Complaint, Jim?

  5. Jim Denham said,

    What point, exactly, are you trying to make with that question, Maria? Or am I just paranoid?

  6. Darren said,

    arsehole is one word, Jim.

    as you were.

  7. Jim Denham said,


    Thanks for your correction, but…

    To misquote Raymond Chandler (he was taliking about infinitives): when I split a word, it stays split.

    Kind Re Gards,

  8. Darren said,

    Raymond who?

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    On the other hand, Jim, Norm was a sympathiser of the Shachtman movement in the 1940s. Surely that deserves an obit from Sean in Solidarity?

  10. redmaria said,

    No point, in other words, no attempt at snide cuss of you, which is how it could have looked, Jim. No. Just a joke about Roth’s most um, notorious book, Portnoy’s Complaint.
    Another vignette: An apocryphal story has it that Mailer, Gore Vidal, Da Hitch, Marty Amis and Salman Rushdie were in the occasional habit of meeting for some beers and convivial chat in the private room of some Washington hotel or another. Apparently as the evenings would wear on conversation would turn to the same inevitable argument … who had the best prose style.

  11. Jim Denham said,

    Maria: I *do* have a little tiny sense of humour, you know! I should start using those fucking irritating “smiley” thingies to telegraph light-hearted remarks.

    Splintered; Sean may or may not write something about Mailer, but even if he does I doubt that it will be because of his (Mailer’s) early, alleged Shactmanite sympathies, which as far as I can judge had no noticeable influence on either his writing or his political stances.

    Have you been reading Sean’s stuff about the British Left and Northern Ireland? The present issue of ‘Solidarity & WL’ has a lengthy piece about the IS’s approach to Northern Ireland in 1968/69, and the influence of Gery Lawless. You’d find it interesting.

  12. splinteredsunrise said,

    Yes Jim, I have. Fascinating stuff.

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