I Liked Norman

"I like Norman," my old friend Malcolm Muggeridge used to exult when, for whatever reason, his mind fixed on Norman Mailer, the great American writer who has now bit the dust. Malcolm himself was a great British writer, whose two volumes of autobiography are among the best in English in the 20th century and whose prose Tom Wolfe has placed in a league with Mencken and Orwell. Muggeridge was also an original, which in part must explain his fondness for Norman. Norman, too, was one of a kind.

I, at first, did not share Muggeridge’s esteem for Norman. In fact, when I first read Norman in the 1960s and early 1970s, I rather hated him. But as life went on, I came to Muggeridge’s side. Norman was a genuine literary talent without being precious. He could write a very clean sentence and pack it with fireworks. When he was not snarling — and he snarled less frequently as time went on — he was good company, always interesting and occasionally even right. He was gutsy, energetic, playful and devoted to telling a good story and telling it well. Moreover, I liked many of the same things he liked: competitive athletics, books, politics, the American scene. Indicative of his independent streak was his opposition to feminism, which for a New York liberal, could lead to exile. Indicative of his left-wing bent, he obsessed over "the corporation" and furnished his obsession with the usual left-wing ghosts and goblins.

Despite the very public philippics I hurled at him as late as the 1970s, we entered into an amiable acquaintance. I doubt it was in Norman’s nature to bear grudges, at least once the peace pipe had been smoked. When asked to participate in American Spectator symposiums, he always would take part, though the magazine’s writers often were among his critics. His contributions were always intelligent and lively. He even attended one of the magazine’s editorial dinners as the featured guest. The scene could have been bloody, for Norman was given an hour to trot out his favorite ideas, some of which were quite hostile to our libertarian-conservative sensibilities. Norman showed up on time and unaccompanied by bodyguards. He was as brave as his legend proclaims. He was also charming, and at the end of the dinner, off he went into the night with a couple of Spectator writers, ready for a few more drinks and laughs.

Norman knew almost as much about boxing as he did about writing, and for some reason, both got intertwined in his thoughts. Famously he saw himself getting into the ring with Hemingway. At stake would be the literary championship of America. Were it a fistfight, I would take Norman. Hemingway was bigger, but Norman had more heart — and he really could put together a combination of lefts and rights, as he demonstrated to me at lunch during the 1996 Republican National Convention. Boxing was on his mind that afternoon. He knew the legendary manager Cus D’Amato, who had worked with two great handball players to train his fighters.

Handball is my sport, and Norman told me D’Amato believed the only athletes he could transform into fighters were handball players. Norman’s explanation of D’Amato’s reasoning was typical Norman. It soared into the metaphysical and the nonsensical, to wit, the lone warrior goes toe-to-toe against his adversary drawing on spiritual and primal values and … Well, by then he had lost me. Actually D’Amato probably had in mind the fighters’ and the handball players’ need to coordinate their footwork with their hands. This weakness for complicated and slightly fla-fla explanations of life was a weakness of Norman’s (along with another that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. mentions in his recently published "Journals": Norman’s inability to "resist risks").

When he pronounced on politics, I was never sure Norman really knew what he was talking about. One night, after he had finished his huge book on the CIA, I introduced him to a beautiful Asian-American lady then serving in the first Bush administration, telling him she was deputy director of central intelligence or some such title. I could not resist, but Norman took me seriously and spent the evening with her discussing the CIA. As I recall, she was a banker working in the Commerce Department. Somehow she filled Norman’s image of an American intelligence operative. I never revealed my joke to him, but if I had, I am sure he would have laughed and somehow recouped with an elaborate explanation.

As he demonstrated in "The Armies of the Night," his journalistic account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon, Norman was a superb journalist. He had a stupendous sense for detail and could describe any scene vividly. His problem was his hyperactive imagination. It caused him to invest chimerical portents into scenes that were better off without them. Metaphors would take on the gorgeous trappings of absurdity. This hyperactive imagination was the ruin of his novels, only one or two of which I could ever finish. It damaged his journalism, too, but not often. There it settled down, assuming the dimensions of mere poetry.

I am told he could be a furious controversialist, but I only knew the charming, somewhat boyish gent. The night of our editorial dinner, the conservative columnist Suzanne Fields gently crossed swords with him. They had known each other since the 1960s. Norman stood his ground and concluded with a twinkle in his eye, "You remind me of one of my ex-wives." I liked Norman.