Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer – a literary sucker punch

Peter Conrad in The Guardian:

Norman Mailer – when not boozily brawling, dosing himself with hallucinogenic drugs and serially fornicating – was a man with a sacred mission. He regarded himself as a prophet, bringing bad news to a society that had settled into consumerist complacency during the 1950s. Americans believe that they live in God’s own country; Mailer alerted them to “the possible existence of Satan”, who might be residing next door and quietly assembling a private arsenal for use on Judgment Day. Although Mailer looked up at the sky with “religious awe”, what he saw there was a mushroom-shaped cloud that he called “the last deity”. Humanity, he declared, was reeling towards self-destruction. Now that his centenary has arrived (he was born 31 January 1923), I dare anyone – and that includes Richard Bradford, the author of this sensationalised canter through his life – to say that he was wrong.

True, Mailer was an obnoxious loudmouth. In episodes that Bradford documents with slavering relish, he conducted literary disputes by butting his colleagues: “Once again words fail you,” drawled the coolly disdainful Gore Vidal after one such attack.

Domestically, Mailer was a wife-beater and almost a murderer: taunted as a “faggot” by the second of his six spouses, he stabbed her with a penknife at a drunken party, just missing her heart. After an early infatuation with President Kennedy, whose fatal ride through Dallas in an open car he applauded as a moment of existentialist bravado, his politics lurched towards fascism. He commended Hitler for providing Germans with an outlet for their “energies”, although – as a man who bragged about his own bulbous, fizzily fertile “cojones” and the indefatigable piston of his penis – he pitied the Führer for possessing only one testicle and having to rely on masturbation.

More here.