Norman Mailer the writer has been a part of my awareness since high school, when my then dearly beloved English teacher loaned me his copy of The Naked and the Dead, and on hot, dull, summer afternoons, read his long, fascinating articles in old issues of magazines like Life, sprawled out on one of the beds down in my maternal grandparents' basement.
Oh those basements of the houses in town to which both sets of grandparents had retired, after lives of endless, constant farm work. How much eclectic past was collected in those basements, family and county, state and nation, and the world's. How much information I gleaned about those worlds before my time, and the world outside our little nowherelandia, so very very isolated from what I early began to think of as "the real world." I pawed through stacks of mildewed books and magazines, boxes of letters, greeting cards for holidays, birthdays, baptisms and funerals, albums of photographs and trunks of treasured dresses and jewelry from other times, collection of carefully washed medicine bottles, all of it equally mysterious, and somehow, glamorous, because all of it was from a time now gone.
Mailer was a great writer. Perhaps not as great as he intended to be or wished to be. But he was a writer of elemental force, perhaps the last of such writers. He was the first to open many worlds to me -- many of them worlds I wish were not so, such as men seeing women as their primal, primary antagonists, the holders and withholders of sex. That was a difficult concept to grasp for a girl who, as yet, had no idea what sex even was, but instinctively I got the message that this was something I needed to understand, if only as self protection. That is how good a writer he was.
As a child and young adult, down in my grandparents' basements, pondering the flotsam and jetsam so carefully collected and preserved of worlds that I did not inhabit, I began to understand that these basements preserved stories, and that stories could be, and were, connected to each other, and it was by writing that we were best able to learn those stories, and preserve them.
Mailer said, not too long before his death, "I think the novel is on the way out. I also believe, because it’s natural to take one’s own occupation more seriously than others, that the world may be the less for that.”
So do I.
Rest in peace, Norman Mailer.