cover image Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer

Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer

Richard Bradford. Bloomsbury Caravel, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4482-1814-1

Bradford (Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith), research professor in English at Ulster University, tackles the work and life of novelist Norman Mailer in this brisk but thin biography. Bradford writes that Mailer’s life “comes as close as is possible to being the Great American Novel; beyond reason, inexplicable, wonderfully grotesque and addictive.” Few of those descriptors play out, however, as Bradford charts Mailer’s life from his boyhood in late 1920s Brooklyn and his matriculation at Harvard, where he discovered literature and began to publish. Mailer was propelled to stardom upon the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, which was based on his own experiences in the military during WWII and employed what became his signature style of “ghoulish naturalism.” A string of less successful writing followed, and violent encounters marked Mailer’s personal life, including him stabbing and almost murdering his second wife, Adele, at a party and breaking the jaw of an actor who “dared to question” his film’s themes. While Bradford offers a solid sense that Mailer could be unpleasant, he never quite digs into how, despite his wildly uneven output and appalling personal behavior, so many people championed him. There is no shortage of books on Mailer, and this one unfortunately doesn’t bring much new to the table. (Jan.)