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Sound and Fury

Norman Mailer's anger and towering ego propelled-and undermined-his prodigious output

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Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times and Norman Mailer stood talking at Carl Bernstein's 50th birthday party. It was Valentine's Day, 1994. The room in Bernstein's apartment in the meatpacking district of Manhattan was illuminated with votive candles. They caused Mailer's backlit nimbus of wiry white hair to glow with an ecclesiastical radiance. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet in the boxer's way he had, a rhythmic motion meant to conjure menace, as if he wished to let you know that while he had one foot safely on the brake, the other was pressed on the accelerator, his motor surging...so that if he chose, he might release the brake and hurtle across the room and smash through the brick wall and cause God knows what mayhem in the world outside.

On the other hand, Mailer had aged (he was past 70), and when he paused to reflect on a point in the conversation, his belligerent, impatient rocking might grow benign, as if transformed into a kind of davening. "Menace" and "dread" and "doom" and "terror" and similar items out of the hipster and existentialist vocabulary of "The White Negro" from decades earlier remained stage effects he brought out from time to time. But mostly those had given way, in private, to the Prospero's twinkle. Surely his quest for the "apocalyptic orgasm" had been abandoned.

Rosenthal and Mailer were gladiators of old, independently famous for ferocity in the arena, Rosenthal as the off-with-their-heads autocrat editor of the Times, Mailer as the media's idea of the American writer as Tasmanian devil. They were brawlers emeritus now, two old pros; Mailer affected a banker's three-piece suit. Their talk was mellow and thoughtful (still more speculation about the Kennedy assassination—Mailer was just back from Moscow, where he had been researching a book on Lee Harvey Oswald).

Lesley Stahl of CBS News wandered over and listened for a moment, and asked Mailer if he had read a certain book that dealt with the subject.

Mailer's eyes kindled, and cut sidelong at Stahl. His mouth cut sidelong as well. He growled—it was actually a quick bark, one dog warning another to stay away from his dinner bowl—and said, "Stupidest f---ing book I ever read."

Stahl paled and said, softly, "My husband wrote it." (That was the journalist Aaron Latham.)

Half-second's pause. Mailer stared straight ahead, weighing whether to repent and apologize—his manners had improved; the everyday Mailer now was usually courteous and kind, in private anyway, which gave him one-sixth of the virtues in the Boy Scout Law. So his inner Boy Scout had a tussle with his nasty controversialist instincts. He considered, and then he fired off his decision, out of the corner of his mouth: "It's still the stupidest f---ing book I ever read."

He resumed rocking back and forth, his banker's vest all but bouncing off Abe Rosenthal.

Stahl (who declined to comment for this article) drifted away, a little stunned.

I tell the story, though I realize, sheepishly, that in recounting it, I am guilty here and there of the sincerest form of flattery, unconsciously adopting a bit of the manner and style of Mailer's own storytelling. That may happen when you write about a powerful writer; after reading and rereading his prose for a while, his resonances and rhythms get into your mind; the same effect may occur if writing about Hemingway or Nabokov. Whatever else Mailer may have been, his was a distinctive voice, and his excesses and peculiarities belonged to his time.

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