A blog by Barry Edelson

The Executioner's Hack

Two stories about Norman Mailer, now deceased, serve well to summarize him as a man and as a writer:

He championed the cause of a convicted felon, who had written a book about prison life, and campaigned for his release. Just a few weeks after getting out of jail in 1981, Mailer's literary project proceeded to murder an aspiring actor/writer in New York City. When questioned about his judgment regarding this man who had previously murdered a prison guard, Mailer unabashedly claimed that the accused was gifted and that it had been worth the risk of setting him free. Worth it to whom, one was compelled to ask. Certainly not to the victim's family, though perhaps to humankind, in which case Mailer seemed to be advocating a form of human sacrifice. His perfunctory expressions of regret about the killing, in subsequent interviews and in testimony at the murder trial, had less to do with the death of another young artist, for which he was indirectly responsible, but, characteristically, more to do with the effect of the incident on him personally.

This case of literary barbarism segues nicely into the second anecdote, about a famous incident involving Mailer and Gore Vidal. Several years after allegedly head-butting Vidal backstage at "The Dick Cavett Show", Mailer punched Vidal at a party and knocked him to the floor. Still on his back, Vidal is reported to have said, "Words fail Norman Mailer once again."

If these anecdotes had been invented by a novelist, they could hardly do better to elucidate a life devoted to fiction.

November 12, 2007

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