Mailer has written as well since, he just hasn't written as importantly - maybe because he finally gained the grace of age ("I didn't hang up my 14-ounce gloves until I was 58") and married for the sixth and (so far) last time. Now the writer of advertisements for himself has, with The Time of Our Time, consecrated his own monument. No matter how much Mailer you've read, there's plenty to discover and rediscover; Marilyn is at least as good as it seemed when new: He never wrote of marriage as well as he did of the unraveling between Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. There are too many installments of his lifelong hate-love affair with the Kennedys. Some say the telegraphic Executioner's Song, his 1979 meditation on the death of killer Gary Gilmore, is his best work. You decide. His exhaustive Oswald meditation has less passion, but perhaps belongs to history too. The boxing canon probably holds nothing better than Mailer's coverage of the 1975 Foreman-Ali bout.
How to explain that other stuff? Samuel Johnson wrote, "It is one thing to write because there is something which the mind wishes to discharge and another to solicit the imagination because ceremony or vanity requires that something be written." Vanity informs Mailer's worst work, but also his best. I'd further guess the incongruity has to do with a word he used to describe his 1956 hipster in "The White Negro": childlike. Mailer remains a child whose measureless curiosity is matched by the learning, experiencing and writing that serve it. Most of us slake our inquisitiveness by reading. Whenever Mailer questions, he seems driven to write something, usually big, to explain it to the universe, whether it be biographies such as Marilyn or Oswald's Tale; an honest historical effort such as Harlot's Ghost; his recent Jesus autobiography, The Gospel According to the Son; or a trashy Pharaonic gut- and bodice-ripper, Ancient Evenings. His unslakable, uncontrollable curiosity (not to mention his occasional need for a big cash advance) can lead him far astray. But it is also what makes Mailer, at a childlike 75, our oldest living great young writer. Long may he swagger.