Sunday, February 18, 2018
Books

Review: Powerful essays from prolific Norman Mailer

It's a measure of how enormously, inexhaustibly prolific Norman Mailer was that, at 624 pages, a new collection of his work, Mind of an Outlaw, is subtitled Selected Essays — not complete essays.

In fact, writes Phillip Sipiora in the editor's preface to the book, "I could include only a small fraction of his most powerful work. Mailer had written so much that the excluded essays ended up far exceeding in number those ultimately selected."

Sipiora is a professor in the English department at the University of South Florida, the founding editor of the Mailer Review and a member of the board of directors of the Norman Mailer Society, and he knew Mailer for many years. Sipiora will appear at the Times Festival of Reading to discuss the book. Mind of an Outlaw is just part of a wave of Mailer-related titles coming up, including new editions and e-editions of many of his books as well as J. Michael Lennon's authorized biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, also out this month. This collection serves as a fine introduction to the author, who died in 2007, as well as reminder to longtime readers of his range, his fierce intellect — and some of his flaws.

Mailer wrote dozens of books as well as hundreds of essays, which appeared originally in venues as varied as the Village Voice, Playboy, Dissent and Architectural Forum. Although he first gained fame with a novel, The Naked and the Dead in 1948, he was at his best in his nonfiction writing. (For my money, The Armies of the Night in 1968 was his masterpiece.)

Mailer had a huge public persona, and it was essentially as a provocateur, an intellectual brawler. He maintained, and enjoyed, long feuds with everyone from William F. Buckley to Germaine Greer. That contrarian streak is evident in many of these essays, and so is his enormous knowledge and his endless curiosity.

Sipiora writes that he first thought to organize the essays thematically, but found that difficult given that so many of them range across categories. His decision to simply group them by decade was wise, I think, since it allows either browsing or a chronological journey through Mailer's — well, development isn't exactly the word, since he's masterful even in many of the earliest of these essays, as in such classics from the 1950s as The White Negro and the title essay.

Across seven decades, Mailer's subjects range from literary and film criticism through war and politics to the personalities that fascinated him with the pull of legend, especially Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway. These essays are vintage Mailer: brilliant, infuriating, witty and never, ever boring.

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