Two new books wrestle with Mailer’s myths and his legacy

Cover00Christian Lorentzen at Bookforum:

Mailer’s novels—there are twelve of them—resist easy groupings. No logic connects them, only the circumstances of their author’s working life. There were four books he conceived of as the first parts of epic series he never got around to completing. There were two he was able to dash off in the course of a summer, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) and Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984)—he considered them “gifts.” Another resulted from a commission from Esquire to write a novel for serialization. And one, Of Women and Their Elegance, indeed amounted to “a quick turn for his creditors,” or in this case the swift fulfillment of an outstanding British publishing contract. His fame allowed him to be something of a literary hustler, writing his first drafts in public, promising interviewers books that would never be written. Novelists are cannier than that today, but few of them are as well paid. Starting in the 1990s, Mailer received $30,000 a month from Random House. With more than a dozen dependents, he still needed another $300,000 yearly on the side (speaking engagements, teleplays, consulting on films) to keep the Mailer machine in motion.

It’s easy to think of Mailer’s career as a case of overcompensation for a youth in Brooklyn as a diligent student and “physical coward.” When he was a freshman at Harvard, he read the books that gave him “the desire to be a major writer”: Studs Lonigan, U.S.A., The Grapes of Wrath. He majored in engineering, but wrote constantly.

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