We know for sure that you can be both a terrible human being and a very great chess player. Alexander Alekhine and Bobby Fischer proved that. But can a truly repellent person also be a great novelist? Can we spend hours in such a person’s company without realizing that he is a jerk? I doubt it.
In Commentary, Algis Valiunas evaluates the achievements and reputation of Norman Mailer, “without question the most famous American writer of the second half of the 20th century.” Actually, I’m skeptical about that. In an objective sense, the most famous American writer of the last half of the 20th century was probably someone like Danielle Steel, while the most respected novelist of that era, by readers as well as critics, was probably Vladimir Nabokov, or maybe John Updike.
Mailer wanted to be famous and was willing to do just about anything to achieve that end, but he also wanted, desperately, to be taken seriously. My own opinion is that his talents were modest. Valiunas, however, does take Mailer seriously, and he relentlessly traces the ways in which Mailer’s appalling character disfigured his career as a novelist. It’s an excellent essay and, in the Commentary tradition, a rather long one. I highly recommend it. It is impossible to excerpt, so I will offer these paragraphs as an inducement to follow the link:
In 1978, Jack Henry Abbott, a federal prisoner in Marion, Illinois, a virtually lifelong inmate of some institution or other, serving a 20-year term for murdering another prisoner, heard of Mailer’s interest in Gary Gilmore and initiated a correspondence. Mailer visited him the next year and brought him a copy of The Executioner’s Song. He admired Abbott’s writing and helped arrange an advance for a book of his letters, which was published as In the Belly of the Beast in 1981. Mailer’s offering Abbott a job as his research assistant was instrumental in securing his parole that year.
A month after Abbott was sprung, he got into an argument on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with a young Cuban waiter and aspiring actor, Richard Adan, over the use of a restaurant bathroom, and he stabbed Adan through the heart. “Culture is worth a little risk,” Mailer averred. “I am willing to gamble with certain elements in society to save this man’s talent.” Eventually he would admit to having blood on his hands. Understanding came too late. He had toyed with enormities for much of his adult life, and it took his complicity in an utterly senseless murder to bring him, at least temporarily, to contrition.
Even if, like me, you don’t think Norman Mailer was ever much of a contender, Valiunas’s essay is well worth your time.