If Philip Roth were to review these books on Mailer, Heller, and Bellow, he'd be tempted to conclude they collectively underscore the vitality of the male Jewish artist in America, experiencing his fate sometimes in triumph, sometimes in near tragedy. They do so, however, with varying degrees of success.
Peter Manso's "oral biography" of Norman Mailer is a fat volume packed with pictures, celebrity gossip, and overlapping anecdotes—all of which attempt to place our most public (and publicized) novelist within his own prolific career.
Manso's method is exhaustive. He tape records more than 200 interviews with Mailer and his friends, wives, relatives, publishers, politicians, socialites, actors, and writers. The interviews appear to have been cut up and arranged roughly in chronological order, sometimes around a particular theme or event. The reader, then, is treated to four or five versions of how Mailer felt about his first year at Harvard, the revelation that his father had a drinking and a gambling problem, the atmosphere surrounding Mailer's celebrated stabbing of his second wife, Adele. Unfortunately, Manso does not edit or integrate his data with the adroitness Mailer himself displayed in Armies of the Night. Stories overlap; contradictions confuse rather than deepen dimensions in Mailer's personality; some anecdotes seem to exist because somebody famous said them. For example, Shelley Winters' description of a Mailer Hollywood Christmas party or Lillian Hellman's story of how Dash locked her in his bedroom to ensure she couldn't take cash to Mailer in Bellevue Hospital are only tangentially tied to Mailer. The voices [End Page 619] compete, and the canvas grows too crowded.
Several voices emerge with freshness and clarity. Diana Trilling's acid-tongued estimates etch her up-and-down relationships with Mailer over several decades. Not only do we hear of his appeal to the New York intelligentsia from the mouth of one of its annointed, but we also sense the pecking order of a New York group including the towering intellects and towering egos of Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin. The letters and exchanges between Mailer and Frances Irby Gwaltney—an old army buddy of Mailer's, a novelist from Arkansas, and a friend for forty years—speak of honest feelings and one novelist's advice to another. They startle with their purity. And the incredible Fanny Schneider Mailer, Norman's mother, enters and reenters the narrative like a cross between a Woody Allen voice-over and a Greek chorus. She is the mother who can admit no shortcomings in her son, who calls him a "genius" at six and sixty, and who is the most powerful influence in his life.
But with these few exceptions, Mailer is too large and unwieldy, the script too unfocused and repetitious to provide any striking or cumulatively rich picture of its subject. Manso has a huge task; to capture Mailer's powerful impact on his peers as well as the raucous exhibitionism of his public persona. It's not surprising that he failed; it is surprising that he didn't even try.
The supporting cast is distinctive and memorable in Heller and Vogel's No Laughing Matter. If Norman Cousins enjoyed Three Stooges movies on the way to recovery from a rare neurological condition, Joseph Heller experiences visits from real-life comedians after having been stricken in 1981 by Guillain-Barré, a rare form of polyneuritis that rapidly paralyzes its victims. No Laughing Matter's main text describes in harrowing detail Heller's plummet from excellent health to (within two weeks' time) a state where he could barely breathe, let alone swallow, or move his arms, legs, or head. The subtext of the account, however, involves the antics of the supporting cast. Mel Brooks—the comedian, filmmaker, and raging hypochondriac who reads his medical dictionary prior to an initial...