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Obituary: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer: America's literary hardman

Norman Mailer, who has died aged 84, was the bad boy of post-war American literature. Short and stocky and with opinions on almost every subject, he combined a formidable writing talent with the streetwise attitude of a prize fighter.

With writers like Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe and John Updike, Norman Mailer was part of an exclusive club of novelists and essayists who challenged, tantalised and often outraged readers with their reflections on American life, history and morality.

He was born in 1923 in New Jersey into a close-knit Jewish family which eventually moved to Brooklyn.

Trouble sustaining success

A bright pupil, he studied aeronautical engineering at Harvard University before serving in the US Army in World War II.

But writing was his first love and, in 1948, he burst upon the literary scene with his third novel, The Naked and the Dead, an existentialist insight into the author's own wartime experiences in the Pacific.

Norman Mailer boxing

The work topped the American best-seller lists and was soon hailed as a modern classic, but Mailer found this success hard to sustain.

His next two novels, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, were poorly received.

The author, by now angry and restless, enjoyed a jazz-infused bohemian lifestyle in New York's Greenwich Village, smoked dope, drank heavily, womanised and brawled.

His excesses culminated in a 1960 party, where he stabbed the second of his six wives with "a three-inch dirty penknife". Adele Morales refused to press charges and Mailer was given a suspended sentence.

By then, he was in the process of re-inventing himself. Combining hipster lyricism with an intense journalistic eye, the youthful novelist evolved into an eloquent and hard-hitting man of letters.

Gore Vidal

A natural essayist, Mailer mused on John F Kennedy in The Presidential Papers (1963) and on his own involvement in anti-Vietnam War protests, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Armies of the Night (1968).

Mailer's obsession with masculinity and violence often got him into trouble. He once beat up a sailor on a Manhattan street because he believed that the man had questioned the sexuality of his dog.

Besides this, he skied, climbed mountains and boxed obsessively.

Catalogue of confrontations

In 1971, he head-butted his fellow writer Gore Vidal before a television chat-show after Vidal had written that "there has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression".

Avoid booze, pot, too much sex, too much failure in one's private life
Mailer's advice to young writers

Politically, Norman Mailer described himself as a "left conservative". He mixed radical politics - damned capitalism, supported the black power movement - while simultaneously baiting feminists, in works like The Prisoner of Sex, and seemingly deepening his love affair with all things violent.

Mailer also aspired to political office. In 1969, he ran for the mayoralty of New York City, but sank his own campaign by telling his aides that they were "nothing but a bunch of spoiled pigs".

An icon manque

Mailer's strength as a mythologiser reached its height in three works. These were his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, The Executioner's Song (1979) - a fictionalised account of the execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore - and Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (1995), an examination of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal: Head-butted by an irate Mailer
All three works dealt with an American icon. Mailer's critics said that he himself aspired to be one, but had sold out his art for the fool's gold of celebrity.

In 2002, uncharacteristically aligning himself with religious organisations and women's rights groups, Norman Mailer called for curbs on human cloning and appeared to some commentators to have rediscovered religion.

He gave up many of his vices in middle age but, to many observers, remained the authentic, boastful, outrageous voice of a whole generation.

Norman Mailer's open attitude towards violence

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