Random House
1,286 pages
$40 hardcover

Reading The Naked and the Dead was a 1950s rite of passage for bezitted teenage mankind. Without acrimony or indulgence, this book portrayed the future many of us suspected we would face as draftees: boredom, humiliation, paralyzing fright and misery; jungle death for some, transformed survival for others. It taught no lessons, preached no sermons, except that life and men could be pretty bad, that courage mattered and that maybe we'd survive. Nothing else I read 40 years ago reads so well now.

What we didn't understand then (we didn't yet know what “great” meant) was that Norman Mailer's first novel, written in 1948, was a great book, even if we had to hide the grubby paperback from our parents – they'd heard that The Naked and the Dead was where people said “fug” (as close as publishers in 1948 were willing to get to “fuck”). By 1958 Mailer was, prophetically, writing an advertisement for himself, mourning his ill-received second and third novels. I saw it in the old Village Voice, which he partly owned and used to hone his own journalism. As I recall, the ad said, “All Over the Country, The Deer Park Is Getting Nothing but Raves.” The quoted reviews were damning. This self-mortification may have signaled both Mailer's impending sabbatical from fiction writing and his embrace of embittered celebrity: His fourth book and first work of nonfiction was Advertisements for Myself (1959). It included “The White Negro,” which promulgated Mailer's definition of hipness. It also included an invitation “to encourage the psychopath within oneself.” Henceforth Mailer mostly assumed the alternating personas – social critic, media personality and manic self-promoter – who've competed for floor space with the author ever since.

Fifty years after Dead's publication, we have The Time of Our Time, an overstuffed compilation of 1,286 Mailer pages, the alpha and omega of someone who in many ways remains America's most exasperating and promising writer. Here is enough of Dead to make you want to buy it again, gleanings of Barbary Shore and the subsequent Deer Park, chunks of further books, articles, reflections, poems. The order blends the chronology of Mailer's fiction with the actual publication dates of the nonfiction, so that extracts from the 1991 CIA novel Harlot's Ghost, set in the 1950s (in which Allen Dulles wears a beeper 16 years before it was invented), precede and follow “White Negro,” imparting an air of retroactive omniscience.

How to take it all in? Most important, how to deal with this self-celebrating promoter and his diverse literary product when the promotion so maddeningly and intentionally infiltrates the literature? Probably by differentiating the work in which Mailer's personality has helped things along, from that in which it's made him look like a fool: There's plenty of both. Thus Mailer, the poster child for spouse abuse who, having stabbed his wife Adele in 1960, now confesses, “It will seem bizarre to some, but in counting the loss to one's wife, oneself, one's daughters, one's family, one's friends, it did not seem disproportionate to mourn the impossibility of sending this letter to [Fidel] Castro.” Bizarre, yes. What he's saying is that the ruckus about the stabbing prevented the world from applauding a nine-page open missive (reprinted in the collection), half fawning, half patronizing, that still reddens the reader's ears on its author's behalf. Then we have the doddering phallocrat who in 1994 tells Madonna that because he doesn't enjoy sex with condoms, they constitute a form of totalitarian oppression.

This is Norman the ego-bound Male Ogre, whom feminists so loved to hate, and vice versa. But Ogre scored with the male literati when, in The Prisoner of Sex (1971), he defended his antecedents D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller from feminist Kate Millett's best-selling critique, Sexual Politics. Mailer tallied points off Millett for sloppy scholarship (I acknowledge personal responsibility: As a junior editor on her 1970 book, I should have checked her citations more carefully). With hindsight, Mailer's defense offers distinctions without differences: There's plenty to cherish in both his heroes' work without pretending that Lawrence was kidding when he celebrated woman's “great, fathomless submission to the soul of a greater man,” or that the females in Miller's Tropics weren't mostly depersonified fuckholes.

In weak work like Prisoner, the more the self-promoting Mailer, the more things go straight down the drain. Yet in the great reportorial books, where events avalanche into history, you bless every ounce of his luminary-infatuated, ego-dripping little being. Nothing explains why the man who wrote The Naked and the Dead decided to reverse the typical reporter-to-novelist passage (of Kipling, of Hemingway) to become the outstanding journalist of the '60s. But literate humanity should revere his transformation. The Armies of the Night (1968), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), one after the other, bang bang bang, were his only career three-game streak: definitive, irreplaceable chronicles. If you weren't there, read Mailer and you will be. In those books, Mailer's ego lifts him over the events like a long board carries a surfer. There he is in the thick of it – yelling “fuck you” at hecklers as he speechifies to antiwar demonstrators (in Armies), telling a crowd of the same age that they have “yet to learn that this society is built on many people hurting many people” (in Miami), and thumbing his nose at Wernher von Braun at the Reichsvet rocketeer's own moon-shot press conference (in Fire). In Mailer's great trilogy, the Zeitgeist met its match. You would never want this guy at your wedding, but boy are you glad he was there, then, when.

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.

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