By Robert Capehert
American conservatism needs a Norman Mailer.
The Jewish fire-plug was born in Long Branch, NJ in 1923. Mailer went on to serve in World War II in the Pacific theatre; the bard of New Journalism and frenzied novels was often brash and vulgar—but the mood of his mind; his adventurous spirit and keen since of personality able to create events was inspirational.
Mailer was consumed for a good many years with politics of the left. But he was also a monstrous critic of them. And his criticism did not end there, but often, and hilariously ironic, were directed onto himself and his enormous faults.
Mailer’s faults were equal to his gifts in extreme. Just like his country.
The insecure Jewish kid from Brooklyn wanted to be Hemingway with Tolstoy’s sense of empathy. He wanted to be a major American novelist. In Mailer’s gifted mind, the novelist was wiser and more important than a medieval king or prince.
Even so, Mailer’s appetites were legion—sin as he referred to it—was his sword; his intoxicant and his captor. He was more right than one could admit. He was obsessed with the mysteries of women; their privacies of pleasure and suffrage—his battles with the fairer sex would become a lifetime obsession throughout dozens of tomes.
Norman Mailer would go on to write two of the greatest non-fiction literary novels ever composed; “The Armies of The Night” and “The Executioner’s Song.” “Armies” took Mailer and other literary celebrities into the caldron of the 1967 march on the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War.
Slurping bourbon from a coffee mug, his brain blasted, his mood depressive; Mailer raged against LBJ’s war with scatological metaphor; he walked amidst younger generations of war protestors sucked into outrage at the sump of the Indochinese conflict. Mailer swore and entertained—he rallied the troops! And he went to jail for his crimes. But he also questioned the communist alliances aligning against the war in Southeast Asia.
The later effort concerned murder in the west of America—all 1,056 pages of it. The elegiac and brutal book observed in simple prose convicted murderer Gary Gilmore’s quest to be executed by a Utah firing squad.
Both literary treasures won Pulitzer Prizes. If not impressive enough, he would write one of the greatest non-fiction novels centered on a sporting event ever. “The Fight” would put Mailer on the biggest of all stages with the biggest of egos—the stocky writer’s being the biggest—as Muhammad Ali and George Foreman squared off in the legendary upset in Zaire, Africa in 1974.
In the last decades of his life, Mailer would turn his immense fascination to the C.I.A. in “Harlot’s Ghost”—a 1,400-page monster about the consciousness of The Agency; and it’s mystifying role in The Cold War.
Finally, as old age gripped his superior literary skills, Mailer summed up his life and career on an old nemesis—Adolf Hitler and the evil of all evil’s parturition in his final book, “The Castle in The Forest.”
Mailer was an egomaniac. But also a man of penitent sorrow. With his finger firmly on the pulse of America’s glories, contradictions, and dare one say it, perversities; Mailer—as he often referred to himself in his writing—was an idiosyncratic whirlwind.
He once echoed just because he could write did not mean he could not fight. And legend and experience; those events life dictates; proved Mailer was endowed with a solid left-hook.
Mailer came to America in maturity; shot out of a canon at 24-years old, just out of the war and Harvard College, with his first novel “The Naked and The Dead” in 1948.
He knew little about writing but the book was a bestseller.
Conservatism in our day needs personality as big and as impactful. Of course, conservatism could do without Mailer’s large contradictions—but Norman’s gifts—sizeable and not routine, impress, nevertheless. When we talk about conservative politics we are looking at the epitome of boring.
Mailer was never boring. Mailer’s unique gifts and their expression in a life of varied complexity; through success and failure, are descriptive realities that Norman Mailer could have only come about in America. This is America’s gift to many outsized and imperfect individuals.
It is and ever should be sought to be preserved an American virtue.
Mailer was large in communicative finesse—something conservatives surely lack. He took on all comers even when unpopular. His principals like a suit of armour even when miscomprehended.
The Democrats are, of course, boring too. But they do have the advantage it seems when it comes to being in touch with our age. While Mailer took many positions this libertarian could never take; one could never say Mailer was out of touch with what was happening in America.
Since our republic is troubled criticism of our culture and way of life is a must in America. Here, Mailer is another prime example of being critical while also—and because!—his love of American ideals.
Norman Mailer died Nov. 10, 2007. American life without him has increased in boredom. There is less laughter and less entertainment with his absence. The American conversation is porous as swiss cheese without his humour and his anger. Mailer, even with absurd contrivances and ignorance, was a pure individual. There would be no more pint-size Jewish writer—a lover of pugilism swinging from our cultural rafters.
There is no more Mailer. His gone aged 84.
No more Norman Mailer as writer-as-fighter animated on his egocentricities; his private poisons gone. But he is missed and one hopes—sooner rather than later—such a personality of grit and determination; of communicative wit and passion, will come upon the conservative movement and amplify its most benison characteristics.