Since his acclaimed first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published exactly 50 years ago, Norman Mailer has been at or near the center of our literary stage. His novels, essays, short stories, criticism, and political and social reportage have earned him much recognition and admiration, including the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes. At the same time, his work has often been controversial, due to his choice of (and approach to) subject matter. One perceptive critic, Louis Menand, wrote in 1985 that "Mailer's life and times are [his] great subject and if we were to string together his omnibus collections . . . one would have a history hard to beat for completeness and impossible to beat for moral nuance." Others have called him outrageous, combative, eogcentric, even distasteful. Mailer, age 75, now allows us the chance to finally decide for ourselves with the publication of The Time of Our Time, a collection which represents the entire range of the author's work.
This generous anthology holds Mailer's selections of his best writing. In over 1,200 pages, the excerpts and pieces appear in the order of the year they refer to, rather than the year they were written. In this, his 31st book, Mailer places fiction, narrative nonfiction, interviews, and other writings side by side. With a body of work arranged in this manner, comparisons and observations are easily made. Striking is the sheer range of Mailer's intellectual curiosity and his willingness to pursue difficult topics. Among them, the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam, the 1968 and 1972 political conventions, the CIA, Watergate, the lives of Maria and Lee Harvey Oswald, Marilyn Monroe, boxing, modern art, sex, feminism, ancient Egypt, and the life of Jesus. Mailer's keen powers of observation and insight enable him to bring a unique sense of immediacy to whatever he's doing; there is a realistic, human understanding of all of his subjects. Also remarkable is his willingness to try different genres. As he writes, "if there is one fell rule in art, it is that repetition kills the soul." This has not been a problem for Mailer, as is evidenced in this volume. I can confidently assert that there is much in The Time of Our Time to admire. Likewise, there is much sure to offend and disturb. Commenting on his goal as a writer, Mailer said in an 1958 interview "that the final purpose of art is to intensify, even, if necessary to exacerbate the moral consciousness of people." At this goal, Mailer has succeeded with a body of work that is truly a testament to a prolific career.
Reviewed by Roger Bishop.