'Double Life' Depicts A Norman Mailer In, Yet Not Of, The World

Alan Cheuse reviews the new biography Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon. The book is 900 pages long and comes from an admiring biographer with incredible access to Mailer, who died six years ago.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Next month will mark six years since the death of the writer Norman Mailer. J. Michael Lennon was Mailer's admiring biographer. He had full access to his subject for more than 25 years and he's just published a 900-page book titled "Norman Mailer: A Double Life." Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: In this large and celebratory book, the first since Norman Mailer's death, we meet Norman Kingsley Mailer, born on January 31, 1923. This nice Jewish momma's boy had the highest IQ of any kid in his Brooklyn neighborhood, we hear. Studying at Harvard toughened his mind and by the time he graduated, he'd put over his initial plan to become an engineer for the goal of becoming a writer.

Enlisting in the Army during World War II and doing a tour of duty in the Pacific Theater as a cook armed with a combat rifle, Mailer kept a cool eye on the Pacific campaign out of which he rightly surmised a great war novel would emerge. He wanted to be the one to write it and he did. "The Naked and the Dead" made Mailer famous at 25. He then took up the perils of fame and power as the subject of most of his next few books.

And as Lennon enumerates, he chased money and women, wed half a dozen times and fathered many children, this profligate writer, heavy drinker, pot smoker, philanderer, but a man not without his charm. Writing fiction and nonfiction, winning Pulitzers, making idiosyncratic films and dabbling in New York City politics, Mailer made death, homicide, violence and war loom large in almost all of his biggest successes.

Even as he wound down his life as a cheerful adulterer and attempted to spend most of his affection, now and then lapsing, on his last wife, Norris Church, his energy and ambition didn't seem much to flag. For now, Mailer remains a controversial figure whose life, as Lennon presents it, is as fascinating as the best of his books.

SIEGEL: The book is "Norman Mailer: A Double Life" written by J. Michael Lennon. It was reviewed for us by Alan Cheuse who teaches writing at George Mason University.

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