'Naked and Dead' at 50: Mailer's a boor, a buffoon This 'Energizer Bunny from hell' is out with a 1,280-page anthology that reveals his arrogance and irresponsibility.

BOOKS THE ARGUMENT

May 17, 1998|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,Special to the sun

How long can a writer hope to ride the wake of a best-selling first novel? With Norman Mailer's flair for shameless self-promotion, a decent start can carry you at least 50 years. The acclaim that greeted Mailer's 1948 war novel, "The Naked and the Dead" convinced him and his publishers that he is a gifted novelist -a conviction that no amount of bad writing since has been able to dispel.

Now, under the auspices of "The Naked and the Dead's" 50th anniversary and Mailer's 75th year, almost 1,300 pages of deplorable prose from Mailer's 30 books are being forced upon readers once again in "The Time of Our Time," (Random House, 1280 pages, $40). This "literary" anthology does accurately reflect one aspect of our time: the ease with which sensationalism and calculated outrageousness have replaced craftmanship in today's literary hierarchy.

If the sheer quantity of bad writing in this anthology were not sufficiently objectionable, it is accompanied by Mailer's usual grandiose claims. He believes that novelists, especially good ones like himself, have deeper insight into the nature of reality because they ask the questions mere mortals do not bother to contemplate, such as "Do I love my wife? Does she love me? What is the nature of love? Do we love our child?"

It is these questions, he finds, that improve the brain. The quality of the answers seems irrelevant.

Having improved his brain by asking these questions again and again, Mailer offers these selections, however dated, in the sincere belief that he has created a cultural history of America for friend and foe alike.

In fact, this collection reveals little more than the progression of Mailer's interests and obsessions and the state of his ego over the past five decades.

As an example of his skills in intellectual argument there is a 1972 letter Mailer wrote to Women's Wear Daily to counter Gore Vidal's accusation of misogyny. In it, Mailer points out that he had been married five times, Vidal none. He had seven children of which five were daughters, Vidal none. He then explains that since "there are four stages to comprehending a woman's character, and you could not claim to know her until you had passed through the four, that is, living together, being married, having children, and going through divorce . . . it was kind of gross of Gore to declare that Mailer hated women." (He neglects to mention what additional insights he gained into his second wife's character when he stabbed her repeatedly with a pen-knife.)

Head- butting

Since his letter did not have sufficient impact, Mailer later head-butted Vidal before appearing with him on the Dick Cavett Show, then insulted him on-stage.

Mailer's political acumen is pretty well contained in his announcement on the 1950s talk show "Night Beat" that "President Eisenhower is a bit of a woman." For those who might miss the daring of this exploit he provides some period flavor. "In those days saying something bad about Dwight D. Eisenhower was not a great deal less atrocious than deciding Jesus Christ has something wrong with Him."

An illustration of Mailer's moral thought can be found in the excerpt "Brooding over Abortion" in which he presents the following reasoning, having finally worked out the spelling of the four-letter expletive he mangled in "The Naked and the Dead"- "Embryos extinguished by abortion were more likely to be the product of extraordinary [sex] than the legal infant who saw the first light in a hospital - all too often embryos who were to be aborted had been conceived in the first place by too many good things happening not to conceive them. Since it is hard to imagine an optimistic view of human nature which would not assume that those who are born out of apocalyptic [sex] are more likely to be rich in potential than those conceived from a dribble, abortion is tragic."

Although he attributes this view to a character named Aquarius, Mailer expanded the theme in his own name in later interviews. Whether or not Mailer was attempting to shake up the abortion debate with shock value or humor, he betrays such a fundamental lack of taste and sensitivity that it is difficult to give him any benefit of the doubt. The complacence and self-satisfaction of his moral irresponsibility is astonishing.

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