Norman Mailer could throw a punch, but as a writer he bobbed and weaved around his Jewishness.
One virtue of the novel is that fictional characters often outlive the novelist who created them. Actually, that’s one of the reasons why some people give up their day jobs to tell stories instead. Aside from having children, fiction writing is one of the best ways to leave evidence of oneself. And, in some cases — think Atticus Finch, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Tom Sawyer — it can even lead to immortality.
Saul Bellow is survived by Augie March and Herzog. Nathan Zuckerman and Alexander Portnoy will endure long after Philip Roth is dead. E.L. Doctorow has already given many historical characters, from Harry Houdini to Albert Einstein, an afterlife that he can’t grant to himself. Danny Saunders is still slugging line drives nearly a decade after Chaim Potok passed away.
In the Jewish geography of men of letters, this phenomenon has a special resonance in the case of Norman Mailer, who died last Saturday at the age of 84. Mailer was unmistakably, quintessentially Jewish, but his writings — whether in the form of his imagined fictions or in his impressionistic renderings of starlets, psychopaths, and heavyweight champions, from Marilyn Monroe to Gary Gilmore to Muhammad Ali — was noticeably removed from the world of Jews and Jewish concerns.
In a life that was far more Page Six than religious or righteous, he took on the Vietnam War, ran for mayor, attacked a former wife with a penknife, founded a countercultural newspaper, directed avant-garde films, engaged in all manner of literary fights both inside and outside the ring and wrote about such decidedly non-tribal subjects as Picasso and the CIA. Mailer may end up being remembered more as a folk hero than as a fiction writer. Indeed, he left us with no iconic fictional character of his own making. In a reversal of the writerly paradigm, he was his own fictional character, a Huck Finn of Brooklyn Heights, a Nick Adams of Provincetown.
Mailer’s career was a prelude to reality TV: his actual life overshadowed the lives he was paid to imagine. Yet, despite the many ways he transformed the solitary life of a writer into a whirlwind of chaos and curiosity, his connection to Judaism was never on display. In fact, this writer rarely exhibited anything even ostensibly Jewish, other than the neurotic, hyperkinetic mania common to many Jewish boys with restless minds. Paradoxically, however, Jews — who he largely avoided in his writings — claimed him as one of their own as much as they took pride in Bernard Malamud and I.B. Singer, Jewish writers with far better ethnic bona fides.
There is irony in Mailer’s name being invoked as an honorary member of the Jewish invasion of fiction writers that dominated the last half of the 20th century — from Bellow, Roth and Malamud, to Joseph Heller, Stanley Elkin, Cynthia Ozick, E.L. Doctorow, Grace Paley and Chaim Potok. After all, Mailer’s actual writings are invisibly Jewish, whereas Philip Roth still has Jewish detractors despite the fact that every page of every Roth novel is a bloodletting of Jewish anxiety and millennial rage. Mailer somehow gets a pass, even though his fiction and nonfiction are the literary equivalent of a nose job, an Anglicized name and country club membership that forever whitewashes the tint of an immigrant past.
Not unlike the way the aura that surrounded his life overwhelmed his art, perhaps Mailer’s most lasting Jewish creation will not be found in his writings but in himself. He was Augie March, incarnate and in Technicolor. His entire persona was a valentine to a furious and robust American immersion. Educated at Harvard during a time when few Jews were admitted, he served in World War II, which inspired his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead.” The book was neither about the Holocaust nor Jewish nationhood, but rather a classic war novel that had far more in common with the writings of Stephen Crane than Abraham Cahan. Later, he lived and wrote in Paris.
In this way, Mailer’s life mirrored a far more conventional Jewish-American storyline. A child of immigrants, obsessed with cultural flight, seeking to transform and remake himself in America not unlike Mordechai Richler’s fictional characters, who sought to conquer the corridors of Canadian society. Reinvention is, for better or worse, a quite common aspiration, if not cliché, of Jews in the diaspora. And Mailer was among the finest practitioners of this fine art of escape. Perhaps this is why many Jews may have ridiculed his departure yet silently rooted for him at the same time.
But there is more to his appeal. Mailer represented the archetype of the street-fighting, tough-talking Jew, brashly taking on all comers. Mailer mixed the cultural refinement of the Ivy League with the coarse, salty chutzpah of the New York streets. Everything about him was robust, muscular and stout, like a circumcised fire hydrant. Even his books weighed in like heavyweights.
Jews are quite familiar with the sort of Jewish character whose chip on his shoulder enters the room before he does. It is grating and, at times, boorish, but Jews luxuriate in this self-image, which stands either in contradiction, or, as an antidote, to a far less defiant ethnic portrait: the one of the Torah-studying, stoop-shouldered, pale-faced rabbinic scholar — the timid Jew awash in anguish.
Those whose chests automatically inflate at the mere mention of the IDF or when another Jewish name is added to the fantasy roster of professional sports heroes are the same people who devoured Rich Cohen’s “Tough Jews” and his wistful nostalgia for the Jewish Cosa Nostra. Some, I suspect, felt the same way about one of my earlier novels, “Second Hand Smoke,” with its Terminator-like Jewish avenger, a child of Holocaust survivors who was programmed to vindicate every crime ever perpetrated against world Jewry.
Mailer boxed his way into the hearts of Jews without many of them having read his books. Yet, in an ironic twist, his most recent literary output addressed theological themes. He even turned slightly to the Holocaust. It was as if he was making a halfhearted return to his Jewishness while simultaneously fighting off the approach of his deathbed.
Norman Mailer certainly knew how to throw a punch. The problem is that as a Jewish writer his fist was mightier than his pen.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist and the author of “The Golems of Gotham.”
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.