The Novel That Norman Mailer Didn’t Write

from The New Yorker

Norman Mailer was one of the most original and powerful writers of the twentieth century, but he never wrote a truly great novel. Despite the great success of his first book, “The Naked and the Dead,” which he wrote at twenty-three, and despite the merits of his second and third novels, “Barbary Shore” and “The Deer Park,” Mailer missed the boat early on, because he never wrote (and seems never even to have considered writing) the book that he was born to write—the bildungsroman of a Maileresque boy in Brooklyn in the nineteen-thirties. Had he written a novel based on his early experiences, it might have done more than launch his career (which “The Naked and the Dead” did quite well); it might have launched his imagination. The power of deep-rooted experience, I suspect, would have given rise to a self-sustaining run of novels. Instead, he sacrificed his literary birthright for the pursuit of experiences that he considered literature-worthy, and he paid a high price to replace it.

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