Picks and Pans Review: Mailer

updated 07/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Manso

For those who think that Norman Mailer is an important American writer and an endlessly fascinating character, this intense, exhaustive examination of his life may prove irresistible. More than 150 friends, relatives, ex-wives and literary figures have been interviewed, and their comments are quoted, some at great length. There are letters, excerpts from reviews, a few dirty jokes and occasionally Mailer's own voice—he cooperated fully with Manso. The reader is given more than one version of many incidents, some as trivial as a scuffle at a Hollywood party attended by Shelley Winters and Marlon Brando. Friends and editors are predictably loyal, but the picture of the man that emerges is of a Jekyll-Hyde personality. He forced his mother to say something nasty to his second father and then howled with laughter, but Lillian Hellman found him "just charming." He stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, but then she was a very difficult woman. Actor Rip Torn, who worked with Mailer on some of the writer's film projects, says, "They were all afraid of him," and Gloria Steinem says, "I feel sorry for him." Readers can find just about anything they want to find about Mailer in these more than 600 pages. Is he worth all this attention? Literary critic Diana Trilling, a major contributor of insights to this volume, says Mailer "doesn't know what he wants to do in action and what he wants to do as a writer in terms of metaphor." The Armies of the Night, Mailer's chronicle of his dabbling in the antiwar movement, is a brilliant, original work of art that should long outlive its creator. In it Mailer the writer describes Mailer the man of action and gives a far more revealing—and rewarding—portrait of himself than this monster-size and eventually tiresome collection of snippets. (Simon and Schuster, $19.95)

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