Norman Mailer Could Make a Phone Book Fascinating

Culture may well be worth a little risk, but it's an unfortunate remark considering that it was Mailer's oft-quoted response to the news that the convict he helped free from prison, Jack Henry Abbott, had been arrested for murdering a waiter. Agile as he was with pencil in hand, he was often maladroit when pressed with evidence that his assumptions about the spiritual essence of violence and the power of writing to redeem and reform a sinner had proved disastrous in practice. There was a substantial uproar from Mailer's critics condemning him for testing his notions with people's lives at stake, but remarkably absent from the irate chorus was conservative gadfly William F.Buckley. A consistent advocate of cultural values, Buckley had his own folly with being a convicted killer's advocate with Edgar Lee Smith. Buckley worked to get Smith freed from prison under the belief that he was innocent of the murder charge he'd been convicted of. Smith was consequently released, only to admit sometime later that he was, after all, guilty . The good conservative remained silent during Mailer's travails. Mailer's fiction, I think, has been given a tragic short -shrift even among his advocates, and it occurs to me that some of those works--An American Dream, Why are We in Vietnam?, Harlot's Ghost--will have posthumous reappraisals and will come to be regarded as some of the most important American novels written in the 20th Century. Mailer's elephantine persona no longer obscures his many good graces as a writer.
— September 17, 2010 7:06 a.m.