Rebelliousness gives way to a calmer demeanor


September 29, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

New York -- The hipster is a geezer now.

Remember all those pictures of Norman Mailer in the 1950s and '60s? He was the archetypal hep cat -- drink and cigarette in

hand at endless New York literary parties, or boxing with former lightweight champion Jose Torres, or throwing himself into the hurly-burly of New York mayoral politics and anti-war demonstrations. He was expressing the "psychopath in oneself," the memorable phrase from his essay "The White Negro," which urged one and all to live the existential and rebellious life of the "hipster."

Now his hair is thinning and thoroughly white, and there are deep lines on his face. Other changes are apparent. In a question-and-answer session last week with journalists to discuss his latest novel, the highly hyped and much anticipated "Harlot's Ghost," Mr. Mailer was nattily dressed in a double-breasted blue blazer -- looking like your congenial Uncle Norm out for a little weekend spin in his cabin cruiser.

Maybe after all these years Norman Mailer still could fling a drink in your face, but being around him suggests the edges have been softening -- that maybe some of his legendary rebelliousness has been calmed. And though he's no hipster anymore, Norman Mailer does look pretty good for a guy of 68. His barrel-chested frame still gives a sense of power, and he walks with a sure step. He continues to talk authoritatively and exhaustingly about anything -- boxing, literature, sex, the metaphysical -- in that distinctive Mailer style, the words tumbling out in a voice that seems not from Brooklyn, where he has lived much of his life, but from the street nonetheless; hard consonants, swallowed syllables and words, an abundance of colloquialisms.

On this rainy day in New York, he was affable, tolerant of stupid questions, and willing to take on the most difficult inquiries. "Harlot's Ghost," his 1,310-page book about the CIA, was to be released in a few weeks and Mr. Mailer was there to discuss what Random House is calling with understatement his "great American novel."

The questions rolled.

"What to date has been your finest hour?"

"I wouldn't know how to answer that," he said genially. A well-timed pause. "I may not have had my finest hour yet."

Could he have been in the CIA?

He pondered the thought, playing to the moment. "Well, I'm sly," he began slowly, "and not above being deceitful. But I guess really I have all the necessary vices and none of the virtues."

Is "Harlot's Ghost" too long? Who would want to read a 1,310-page novel?

"It's long if you're a book reviewer and have 24 hours to read it," Mr. Mailer responded knowingly as he looked around the room at his interviewers' faces. "But I think it's as long as it's needed to be. I know someone who read it in three days. Other people read it in parts over a few weeks. No matter how long a book is, if it's done right, it ends up becoming your friend."

(Later, he did concede, deadpan: "This book does come in at the very outer edge of portability.")

And, uh, Norman, what about those negative early reviews of "Harlot's Ghost"? Newsweek and Time blasted it for its long-windedness and pomposity. In a review in the New York Times Book Review running today, critic John Simon did a nasty slice-and-dice, calling it "an arbitrary, lopsided novel that outstays its welcome. And keeps on outstaying it."

Well, not to worry. This old "club fighter," as Mr. Mailer facetiously referred to himself at the beginning of the interview session, can absorb a few pokes to the head and below the belt.

"Actually," Mr. Mailer said with a straight face, "I think he [Mr. Simon] liked it more than he wanted to."

Perhaps it was no surprise that Mr. Mailer seemed so even-handed, so gracious. Certainly this is not the first time that a bull's-eye has been painted on Norman Mailer's chest. True to the example of one of his early heroes, Ernest Hemingway, he's led a big life, with big successes and big failures.

His literary career has included a stunning, hugely successful first novel in "The Naked and the Dead," which came out in 1948 when Mr. Mailer was but 25, and remains one of the finest works of fiction to come out about World War II. He won Pulitzer Prizes for "The Armies of the Night" (in journalism) and "The Executioner's Song" (fiction), in the latter blending fiction and nonfiction in a remarkably effective way.

Along with Tom Wolfe, he must be considered an essential early voice of the New Journalism, which brought novelistic techniques and the first-person approach to nonfiction.

But there have been many duds and downs. Most of his novels have been harshly criticized; few writers would want to have "Ancient Evenings," his turgid 1982 novel set in ancient Egypt, on their resumes. There also have been six wives, one of whom he stabbed in a celebrated incident, and innumerable public posturings and embarrassments.

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