Pperbacks: A headbutt for Gore Vidal

The Time of Our Time by Norman Mailer Abacus pounds 12.99

It is sometimes hard to take Norman Mailer seriously: those overlong, windbag novels, the marathon sentences that just keep jogging on, the demotic language stuck into self- consciously literary constructions, the self-aggrandising reportage (in which he always refers to himself in the third person) ... we don't really believe he's a Great American Writer, do we?

This thick anthology generously illustrates all his faults. The pieces are arranged, by the way, according to the year they refer to, rather than the year they were published; so that it functions as a kind of history of America, but also allows "the perceptions of a man no longer young ... [to] be posed against insights the writer had once set down decades earlier".

All the stuff you would expect is here: an extract from The Naked and the Dead, the Second World War novel that put Mailer on the map, describing a night-time firefight; Mailer on the riotous presidential primaries of 1968 in Miami and the Siege of Chicago; chunks from The Fight, his account of the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle", and from his Gary Gilmore book The Executioner's Song, his account of Gilmore's death by firing squad. There's Mailer the polemical liberal, Mailer the scourge of Women's Liberation, Mailer the self-proclaimed literary heavyweight.

If you want a piece that sums up all these sides of him, and all his massive faults, turn to 1971, "The Cavett Show with Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner", his account - third-person, naturally - of a humiliating television confrontation with Vidal, his old enemy. Having headbutted Vidal in the green room, Mailer marches on to the set, insults host and fellow guests and proceeds to talk nonsense. ("He made a small vow never to drink again before going on TV".) By his own account he is aggressive, dismissive, incoherent, arrogant, but also absolutely convinced of his own righteousness. The language is sometimes affectedly demotic ("Dig!"), at times pompously literary ("Boborygimous was the laughter").

But the piece also points to his qualities: the uncompromising intellectual ambition, and the hard-worked honesty, untrammelled by self-perception. Even when the writing is at its most laboured or its most hysterical, the spirit behind it is heroic. It's hard to think of another writer big enough to map a half-century of America. Mailer has always struck me as demanding too much work for the little reward he offers, but after this, I think I'm coming round to him.

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