Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Bad Year for Great American Writers

In April it was Kurt Vonnegut. Less than two weeks later it was David Halberstam. Today it is Norman Mailer.

Of these three great American writers who passed away this year, Mailer was probably the one who evoked the most emotions from people as he was anything but politically correct. Yet he enjoyed politics and he had many endearing traits, as did Halberstam and Vonnegut. I believe Halberstam was the greatest non-fiction writer of the second-half of the twentieth century. Just before he died, Vonnegut was perhaps the greatest living novelist.

Mailer, on the hand, doesn’t quite fit into any single category. He wrote newspaper and magazine stories, screenplays, non-fiction books, and was a film director, too. It was his ambition that I most admire. Of the 30 books he wrote, 12 were fiction and 18 were non-fiction. I never read any of his fiction. I did read The Fight, Mailer’s account of the “Rumble in Jungle,” when Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in Zaire for the heavyweight title. Though he was a great observer and extremely intelligent, Mailer liked to be involved in the action. He enjoyed boxing, arguing, and marched with the Vietnam protestors in Washington, D.C. He ran for mayor of New York. He also, drank, smoke, and almost fatally stabbed his second wife after drinking too much at a party. He married six times and had nine children. Despite all this, he was a disciplined writer. And though he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, he never did write the great American novel he so desperately wanted to. Nevertheless, Mailer died today, joining Vonnegut and Halberstam. And while all three were intellectuals of note, it was Mailer’s passion for life that I most admire. For interviewing people and sitting at your desk and writing is only one aspect of living. Mailer embraced so many other aspects as well, even if many didn’t approve. But he didn’t care. He liked himself. No, he loved himself, sometimes to the point of narcissism. One of his most famous magazine stories was titled, “Ego.” But it was his confidence and passion that made him the superb writer he was, and more importantly, the great man he was.