John Sutherland: A writer with a love of boxing, booze and broads

Norman Mailer was a New Yorker all his writing life. None the less, one of the projects of that life was to slough off the skin of the Little Jewish Boy from Brooklyn.

He entered Harvard and graduated just in time to enlist. Rifleman Mailer saw enough action in the Pacific to furnish raw material for The Naked and the Dead (1948). In it Mailer daringly reproduced the actual language of soldiers. The Anglo-Saxon world was not ready for Anglo-Saxonism, and Mailer compromised with the three-letter word "fug". It provoked the wisecrack (usually attributed to Dorothy Parker): "So you're the young man who can't spell 'fuck'."

Mailer's next two novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), were epic flops. He gleefully reproduced the reviewers' hatchetry in a full-page advertisement in The Village Voice.

In Advertisements for Myself (1959), Mailer confessed: "I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind." He would, in fact, hitch his wagon to the starry John F Kennedy. It was the Irishness in JFK that he particularly relished. Mailer himself affected an Irish persona at this period and three Hibernian features particularly attracted him: the love of boxing, booze and broads.

Mailer put on the gloves himself – though he later admitted that he incurred more brain damage from drink. He married enough wives (six), raised enough children (nine), and had enough grandchildren (10) round his knees to populate the Isle of Innisfree.

Mailer ran for Mayor of New York. He pioneered "New Journalism" before anyone had a name for it and used it to combat Nixon and Vietnam. In The Prisoner of Sex, Mailer took up the cudgels in the early 1970s against the most formidable orthodoxy of the time, feminism.

Only one thing seemed to give Mailer a writing block: the unprecedented million-dollar advance he received for the work that eventually appeared as Ancient Evenings (1983). Mailer himself preferred the Mickey Spillane-inspired thriller, Tough Guys Don't Dance, which he churned out in two months.

John Sutherland is the ex-chairman of the Man Booker Prize

Comments