Norman Mailer Turns 80

Norman Mailer reflects on turning 80 during an interview in his Brooklyn Heights apartment, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2003, in New York. The author of such acclaimed works as "The Naked and the Dead," and The Armies of the Night, " Mailer has a new book about writing, "The Spooky Art."
Norman Mailer did not expect to make it to 40, and now finds himself twice that age.

He has lived longer than Ernest Hemingway and most of his other literary heroes. His body aches, but his mind remains strong.

But a man famous for swooning to his own song does none of that during a recent interview. While he plans to celebrate with family and friends, he also worries.

"I always liked the number 80. ... But I think you pass a certain border at that point. How long are you going to be able to keep writing? There are not that many good writers at 80," says Mailer, whose birthday is Friday.

The author of such classics as "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Executioner's Song" has just published "The Spooky Art," a work on writing that's as much compiled as it is written.

Reprints of old essays and interviews fill out a 310-page treatise that includes essays on "stamina" and "the occult" and some advice worthy of a man married six times: "It's not a good idea to try to put your wife into your novel. Not your latest wife, anyway."

Reviews have been mixed and the author wonders when, and if, he'll finish a book again. He's working on a "big novel" that he declines to discuss and doubts he'll get to a promised sequel to his 1,300 page-novel, "Harlot's Ghost," which came out in 1991 and ends with a cliffhanger: "TO BE CONTINUED."

Mailer spent his 70th birthday in Moscow, wintertime, and the climate is no softer in New York on this icy afternoon. The heat isn't working at his Brooklyn riverfront loft, so the barrel-chested Mailer wears a big blue parka and coughs a good, lusty cough.

"My knees are old, my hearing is going and some of my senses are diminished," he says, sitting at an oak reading table near the window, reclining against a small, hard chair that doesn't lean back in return.

"But my brain is not too old, maybe 50. I have always looked upon aging as analogous to being an old freighter and to sail through heavy seas you have to throw some things overboard. You give up certain senses. In my case, I wanted to keep my mind reasonably alive."

Born in Long Branch, N.J., and raised in Brooklyn, Mailer is an accountant's son who studied engineering at Harvard University but dreamed of literary glory. He served as an infantryman in the Philippines during World War II and made memorable use of his experiences in "The Naked and the Dead," which made him famous at 25.

"When I started out, one could really take the vocation most seriously — Hemingway, (William) Faulkner, (John) Steinbeck, (John) Dos Passos. ... You had the feeling you could really change the nature of the country," he says.

"To this day, when you hear a Russian say the word `Pushkin,' they don't say `Pushkin.' They say `Poooshkin,' as if they're about to kiss a baby's bottom, because they love (Alexander) Pushkin so much."

Living up to his debut novel became his burden, relieved only in the 1960s when he was reborn as a literary journalist, the violent but visionary chronicler of presidential conventions, anti-war marches, boxing matches and the death penalty.

He won two Pulitzer Prizes, for "The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song." He had nine children, nearly murdered his second wife, ran for New York City mayor, was banned from a YMHA in Manhattan for writing obscene poetry.

"I was living a life on the edge," he says. "I thought I'd never reach 40."

"The Executioner's Song" came out in 1979. But none of his recent books, including "Oswald's Tale" and "Ancient Evenings," have received much acclaim. In turn, he finds the world less interesting: bland, stagnant, corporate.

For years, Mailer has brought reporters to his window and pointed in despair at the skyline of lower Manhattan, a view worth far more to real estate agents than to the author, who likens all the glassy skyscrapers to so many boxes of Kleenex.

Mailer once wrote public letters to heads of state, and even met President Kennedy, but now believes those in power have little reason to bother with him. He laughs at the idea of a meeting with President Bush — "Would he listen?" — and remembers a 1972 lunch with then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan and some fellow reporters.

"He was like a public relations man from a medium-sized, Midwest corporation — kind of clean, neat, slightly pleasant, slightly dull," he says.

"But he never once looked into my eyes. He knew there was nothing he could gain from a conversation with me. I realized that's why this man has risen so high. He's never made the mistake of talking to a man who was of no use to him."