A Double Life
Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9781439150191, 947pp.
Publication Date: October 15, 2013
Norman Mailer was one of the giants of American letters and one of the most celebrated public figures of his time. He was a novelist, journalist, biographer, and filmmaker; a provocateur and passionate observer of his times; and a husband, father, and serial philanderer.
Perhaps nothing characterized Mailer more than his unbounded ambition. He wanted not merely to be the greatest writer of his generation, but a writer great enough to be compared to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. As Michael Lennon describes, he even had presidential ambitions, although he settled for running for mayor of New York City. He championed personal freedom and civil liberties, calling himself a "left conservative," and yet he was Enemy #1 of the Women's Movement. He was as pugnacious in real life as in print, engaging in famous feuds and fights. Although he considered himself first and foremost a novelist, his greatest literary contribution may have been in journalism, where he used his novelistic gifts in tandem with self-revelation to explore the American psyche. In that regard, the subtitle of his Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning Armies of the Night is telling: "History as a Novel, the Novel as History." He would return to certain subjects obsessively: John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, sex, technology, and the intricate relationship of fame and identity. Michael Lennon's definitive biography captures Mailer in all his sharp complexities and shows us how he self-consciously invented and reinvented himself throughout his lifetime.
Michael Lennon knew Mailer for thirty-five years, and in writing this biography, he has had the cooperation of Mailer's late widow, Norris Church, his ex-wives, and all of his children, as well as his sister, Barbara. He also had access to Mailer's vast, unpublished correspondence and papers, and he interviewed dozens of people who knew Mailer. Norman Mailer: A Double Life gives us the man in full, a remarkable and unique figure in the context of his times.
“In the hands of this superb biographer, Norman Mailer comes vividly to life—irresistible, brilliant, formidable, hungry for fame, and endlessly fascinating. Lennon’s great achievement lies in matching Mailer’s energy and talent with his own. This is surely one of the best biographies ever written of an American writer.”
-Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of The Bully Pulpit and Team of Rivals
“Lennon captures Mailer brilliantly—in all his guises and disguises. At the heart of Mailer’s writing was a selfishness to live as many lives as possible, coupled with a deep and elusive empathy. He kept slipping into new times, and geographies, losing himself there. The only things worth doing were the things that might break a heart—and indeed he broke many. Lennon looks at a literary life with great compassion and comprehensive accuracy. A biography for scholars and readers alike.”
-Colum McCann, author of TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin
“Norman Mailer lived a big, brash, bawdy, belligerent life, and J. Michael Lennon has captured every moment of it.”
-Deirdre Bair, author of Saul Steinberg and Samuel Beckett
"Mailer comes alive on every page, often in his own words, compulsive in his self-overcoming, in his ‘Napoleonic’ battling with peers and critics to become America’s number-one writer, and in his often self-destructive dealings with the world he wanted to analyze (and did) and conquer (not quite). This biography is brisk and electric, a vigorous panorama of the ‘singular, unprecedented and irreplaceable’ life that Norman Mailer lived."
-William Kennedy, author of Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes and Ironweed
Alan Cheuse reviews the new biography Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon. The book is 900 pages long and comes from an admiring biographer with incredible access to Mailer, who died six years ago. More at NPR.org
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