I don’t think Norman Mailer made me want to be a writer, but I know Norman Mailer made me think being a writer could be exciting. My parents subscribed to Life and Time and Newsweek, and Mailer was a fixture in their pages, as a subject and contributor (it’s hard to imagine Time and Newsweek putting a writer other than J.K. Rowling on the cover today, but they did then: Mailer, Updike, Nabokov, Buckley. . . .) And inside? Mailer marching on the Pentagon and arguing with feminists and running for mayor of New York and insulting Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show, and all his brio and bravado made me want to read his books. And so I read The Armies of the Night and The Prisoner of Sex and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, certainly not getting half of what he was putting into those works, but nonetheless marveling at them, at his flood of words. “Rockefeller’s smile was as warm as February sunshine,’’ he wrote, I think—I’m quoting from memory–but those books were full of lines like that, sharp, funny shots that sized up the public men of the moment and bared their shortcomings, and I thought he was brilliant, even though in my youth I couldn’t always explain why.
After he ran for mayor (on a ticket with the great Jimmy Breslin, running for president of the City Council) I read another book, Managing Mailer, by his campaign manager, a Village Voice writer named Joe Flaherty. In his blurb for the book, Mailer—accurately, and without embellishment—said “Flaherty treats a dozen delicate egos like golf balls and then proceeds to see how far he can whap them.’’ It’s true—the book is unsparing, smart-alecky, keenly observed. It’s just wonderful. Here’s Flaherty’s description of the day Mailer and Breslin spoke at a student demonstration at Queens College:
“About a thousand students sat in a sun-baked mall waiting for the candidates. Others sat or dangled from walls and windows, giving the campus the look of a seized border town. And then there was the heat and the flesh—young men, shirtless, with bodies that had not yet made the acquaintance of fat, and young girls in shorts whose brown thighs were covered with a veil of blond algae. . . .Breslin stood, waiting for them to quiet down. Finally Mailer could no longer resist the compelling of stink of sweat and sensuality. He put his arm across Breslin’s body and pushed him aside, seizing the podium. And to answer all their questions and define their religion, he screamed `Fuck!’, plunging into them as if they were a pair of open legs.’’
This was the book that made me think that living a writing life in New York could be a life worth living.
All these years later it’s no revelation to say that I’m not a writer of towering talent like Mailer or with the great soul of Breslin, but after beginning my studies with Mailer I have perhaps become a writer like Flaherty, who was 47 when he died in 1984, just before publishing a pretty good novel called Tin Wife. Maybe that’s what it means to be a great figure like Mailer—you start ripples that meet ripples that start other ripples that keep going and going, all the way to an unimagined shore.