Saturday, November 10, 2007


He changed the life of his times, back when times could be changed by a writer. No writer of his generation had Mailer's ambition -- or, fortunately for his ambition and his readers, his range.

I was 13 or 14 when I first read him, Barbary Shore, whose first sentence --

"Probably I was in the war."

-- struck me then and strikes me now as a marvelous, frightening gambit, a hook that's also an existential jab, a signal that we are not embarked upon anything like a traditional novel.

Nor were we, nor was he.

The vastness of his gifts was matched by the acuity of his eye and ear: while the political writing is rightly celebrated for his sense of how things work, Mailer was also an acute social novelist and observer. The societies of which he wrote best in fiction and nonfiction -- ancient Egypt, the CIA, soldiers on patrol, the familial and social structures and strictures surrounding young Adolph Hitler, the astronaut /engineer corps in the summer of the first moon landing, marchers approaching the Pentagon, murderer and murdered in Utah, more -- were from his perspective and in his prose representative of the cosmic as well as the common, the divine as well as the bedeviled, the orgiastic and the disciplined, the brilliant and the brutal, the contemporary and the timeless.

He tried to get it all between the covers of his books, each of them different, each informed by a mind relentless in its pursuit of the ultimate, its sense of language, its adherence to the importance of writing not only well but also challengingly.

No less in the last year of his career than the sixty years of work and words that preceded it. He wrote once:

Every moment of one's existence, one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit.

His own moments now ended, his moment, that moment of history that was our times from The Naked and the Dead in 1948 to On God published a few weeks before his death, remains alive and lively, his voice ongoing in his books and his essays and all the rest, themselves though now artifacts of a time and of times when writing and writers mattered more to the culture than they do now.

Which itself doesn't matter: he did his work and did remarkable work, and through it all was engaged in an exploration the equal of any writer one cares to name, nearly every page reminding us of his commitment to a journey best described by one of his best narrators:

We sail across dominions barely seen, washed by swells of time. We plow through fields of magnetism. Past and future come together on thunderheads and our dead hearts live with lightning in the wounds of the Gods.