After he finished reading an earlier biography of himself, Norman Mailer told me, with a mixture of rue and triumph, “He missed the twinkle.” His new biographer, J. Michael Lennon, does not miss the twinkle or much else about the writer who swaggered across a half century of American life, writing novels, plays, poems, essays, journalism, even some theological speculation along with directing movies. Near the end Mailer stood, propped on two canes like a wounded mercenary who had fought behind the lines all his life, a writer/celebrity as drained by the daring and scope of his ambition to find the Northwest Passage to the origins of American mores as Theodore Roosevelt was when, scarred and fevered, he emerged from his post-presidential search for the source of the Amazon.
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A long-time friend etches the extraordinary and exhaustive life of the lion of American letters. Review by Shougat Dasgupta.
When J. Michael Lennon, Emeritus Vice President for Academic Affairs and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, became Norman Mailer’s authorized biographer in 2006, he must have felt like a fighter preparing for the bout of his life. Yes, Lennon had known and worked with Mailer for decades. True, in addition to being chair of the editorial board of The Mailer Review, he had written or edited several books about and with Mailer. Sure, he was the past president of the Norman Mailer Society. But none of that diminished the task before him.
Biographer Lennon knew Mailer intimately as his friend, archivist, editor of his letters (still in progress) and partner in “On God,” a series of interviews about religion. Mailer had invited Lennon to be his biographer, and this richly detailed, revealing and very frank volume is the happy result. Its heft alone would please Mailer, who produced numerous shelf-benders.
While reading the first chapter of “Norman Mailer, A Double Life,” the exhaustive (and exhausting) new biography of the great man by J. Michael Lennon, I discovered that during his formative years, from the age of nine through his admittance to Harvard at 16, Mailer lived in an apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, seven blocks from where I reside now
In the Prologue to Norman Mailer: A Double Life, biographer J. Michael Lennon writes that “Mailer’s desire for fame, and his distaste for it, never abated over his long career. Nor did his ability to determine how he might write about his current situation, whatever it might be. It became a reflex.”
Lennon avoids flourishes of style and presents the facts cleanly, modulating with ease between explication of facts, letters, quotes from texts by Mailer and others, and occasional personal input (he was a close friend of Mailer’s for over two decades). The prose is breezy and fluid, even when Lennon incorporates critical literature and other secondary materials, allowing his subject to emerge unhindered. In addition to its readability, the book is also an excellent academic resource with over 100 pages of endnotes—a treasure for literary scholars. Not only is Norman Mailer: A Double Life enlightening, lively, and a pleasure to read, it is almost certain to become the standard Mailer biography.
Noted Norman Mailer scholar, editor, archivist, and authorized biographer, J. Michael Lennon, whose “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” was released in October, will be the featured speaker at Darien Library on Sunday, Feb. 9 at 5 p.m. Books will be available for purchase at the talk, and refreshments will be served.
James Wolcott shares some thoughts on Norman Mailer and the bio.