It’s high praise when Joan Didion declares you the only person capable of writing a particular story. This is a woman who knows from voice. In her review of Norman Mailer’s 1979’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Executioner’s Song, Didion says, “I think no one but Mailer could have dared this book. The authentic Western voice, the voice heard [here], is one heard often in life but only rarely in literature.”
Mailer, who died in 2007 at age 84, helped spearhead a movement known as “new journalism,” a term often used to describe the work of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, wherein the storytelling techniques of a novel are grafted on to real life. It’s not quite fiction and it’s not quite true. Or maybe it’s both, as was the case with both Executioner and Capote’s seminal work—which is just as often shelved with novels as it is in nonfiction—In Cold Blood. In both, the subject is murder. The victims are real. The killers really killed (and in both cases were executed for their crimes). But everything in between the facts? That’s Mailer the novelist, Mailer the “authentic Western voice,” giving life to characters who exist both on and off the page.
Today, Mailer would have turned 91. His last novel, The Castle in the Forest, was as complicated as its author. Few things say “dangerous writing territory” like a story about Hitler’s childhood. And yet Castle received the best critical reviews of Mailer’s career since Executioner. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, concluding that, “Mailer arrives at a somber, compelling portrait of a monstrous soul,” while Booklist commented that “In his first novel in more than a decade, Mailer continues to provoke. Only a writer with his temerity would attempt a novel interpreting perhaps the most notorious figure in modern history, Adolf Hitler.”
And yet, in typical contrarian Mailer fashion, Castle also received 2007’s Bad Sex in Fiction award from Literary Review. The aim of the award, according to the magazine, is “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”
To impress your friends on trivia night, you should know that John Updike received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 and that, as a writer, you should avoid sentences along the lines of “[l]ike a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her,” which won Rowan Somerville the 2010 prize for his novel, The Shape of Her.
And if you want to become a Mailer expert, try reading Dr. Joe Wenke’s Mailer’s America, which the subject himself—a tough critic at the best of times—declared a “fine, intelligent, and well-honed, well-balanced critical performance.”
Mailer’s posthumous achievement was, as one of the magazine’s editors described it, decided by the heavy use of excrement. (If you haven’t read the book, use your imagination, and you still might not come close.)
Mailer was anything but full of shit. He was full of brash vigor, extraordinary sentences, and outspoken opinions. Here’s to you, Mr. Mailer. We hope you’re enjoying a stiff drink somewhere and still raising hell.