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Issue Date:  December 7, 2007

-- Drawn & Quartered/David Smith Weef

Memorable Mailer

The wild man of literature was obsessed with God

Religion News Service

The news arrived in an early morning phone call from our daughter Jessica, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., a short subway ride from where Mailer died Nov. 10 in Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital at the age of 84.

Mailer was among my most memorable personal encounters. I interviewed him about a retrospective of his work, The Time of Our Times. We met in Mailer’s penthouse suite atop Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel.

I went to the private reception area and was greeted by a cheerful 28-year-old who asked, “How do you spell that?” when I asked to see Norman Mailer. That she did not know Mailer is a commentary on her, but as you will see, was also a confirmation of Mailer’s worst fear.

I was uncharacteristically anxious as I headed for his room because I had been warned of Mailer’s strident, combative, feisty ways.

Things are often not what you expect.

When Mailer opened the door, he seemed frail and feeble, using a cane to steady himself. He asked if I needed anything to drink, offered me a chair and we got down to our work.

His opening words still haunt me.

He pointed to a small desk and said, “Fifty years ago I was an unknown man sitting alone in a room with a pen and pencil, and now 50 years later I am an unknown man sitting alone in a room with a pen and pencil.”

It was an odd place to start a conversation with a man who burst on the scene in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead and went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes for The Armies of the Night and for The Executioner’s Song.

But like the boxers he so admired, Mailer built a career on throwing surprising punches and, even in his advancing years, was ready to stand his ground and take on a conversationalist. I actually don’t remember the interview itself. I do recall what happened after.

We had been talking about the Essenes, a first-century Jewish sect he admired. He launched into a diatribe about the Apostle Paul, whom he believed bastardized Jesus’ teachings into a legalistic religion that Jesus himself would have railed against.

He learned I was a seminary graduate and said, “Oh, I wish I would have known you went to seminary. I would have gone out drinking with you. I used to go out and get drunk and talk about sex. Now I go out and get drunk and talk about God. I’m obsessed with God.”

He went on to say, “I believe God is imminent. He is closer than we can imagine.” There’s more. “God cannot be both all loving and all powerful,” he said, “because if he was, he would not have allowed the Holocaust to happen. Therefore I have concluded that God is all loving, but not all powerful.”

We counterpunched and reasoned -- it was intense. The old man was morphing before me into the wild man I had been warned of.

It reminded me of the opening pages of The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, where Mailer described himself.

“As Mailer had come to recognize over the years, the modest everyday fellow of his daily round was servant to a wild man in himself: The gent did not appear so very often, sometimes so rarely as once a month, sometimes not even twice a year, and he sometimes came when Mailer was frightened and furious at the fear, sometimes he came just to get a breath of air. He was indispensable, however, and Mailer was even fond of him for the wild man was witty in his own wild way and absolutely fearless. ... He would have been admirable, except that he was an absolute egomaniac, a Beast -- no recognition existed of the existence of anything beyond the range of his reach.”

My time was up. The next appointment was waiting. Mailer grabbed my book and signed it, “a rugged and most interesting hour.”

And so it was.

Dick Staub is the author of The Culturally Savvy Christian and the host of “The Kindlings Muse,” www.thekindlings.com. His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2007

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