The best books to start reading Norman Mailer

Robert J. Begiebing Author Of Norman Mailer at 100: Conversations, Correlations, Confrontations
By Robert J. Begiebing

Who am I?

I’m a Professor of English Emeritus at Southern New Hampshire University and author of ten books, including fiction, criticism, memoir, and collected journalism. I was also an inaugural faculty member in the writing workshops at the Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown, MA. I first got into Mailer in the 1970s after reading The Naked and the Dead and Cannibals and ChristiansI ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on Mailer, which became my first book, Acts of Regeneration. My second book, Toward A New Synthesis, examined Mailer along with John Fowles and John Gardner as writers who adopted some of the techniques of post-modernism but kept their work firmly tethered to ethical issues.  


I wrote...

Norman Mailer at 100: Conversations, Correlations, Confrontations

By Robert J. Begiebing,

Book cover of Norman Mailer at 100: Conversations, Correlations, Confrontations

What is my book about?

Demonstrating that Mailer (who was born in 1923 and died in 2007) is still a provocative presence in American letters, Norman Mailer at 100 commemorates Mailer’s centenary and the 75th anniversary of his best-selling debut novel The Naked and the DeadThrough six critical essays, two creative dialogues featuring Mailer with Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway, and my own interview with Mailer, the book reveals how Mailer’s work contributed to shaping the 20th-century literary landscape and underscores how Mailer’s work can help us confront the challenges of today.

The book is but one commemorative artifact among the films (American and European), plays, books, and a television series about Mailer due out in late 2022 through 2023.

The books I picked & why

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The Executioner's Song

By Norman Mailer,

Book cover of The Executioner's Song

Why this book?

Mailer’s novels from the 1960s-2007 are notoriously challenging, and I’ve seen readers wanting to see what Mailer is about sometimes make the mistake of starting with one of his more difficult, convoluted novels—Ancient Evenings or Harlot’s Ghost, for example. But The Executioner’s Song is thought by many critics to be not only his best novel (winning his second Pulitzer Prize), but his most readable, despite its length. It recounts the story and ultimate execution in January of 1977 of Gary Gilmore, who murdered two men during his release from prison on parole. But what Mailer does is work outward from that basic fact to go beyond the media circus that surrounded the case and the execution to try to understand Gilmore, his girlfriend Nicole, and the whole American setting—particularly the American West—that defined their lives. 

Joan Didion’s wonderful review in the NYTBR said Mailer had written a book that captured “the authentic Western voice rarely heard in literature,” and she was the first to recognize that “the strongest voices in it are those of the women.” Only Mailer, she said, would have dared it, taken the risk. “This is an absolutely astonishing book,” Didion concluded. All this was accomplished by Mailer’s use of a flat, readable rhetoric, rather than his torrential, Melvillian style.  

The Executioner's Song

By Norman Mailer,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Executioner's Song as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY ANDREW O'HAGAN

In the summer of 1976 Gary Gilmore robbed two men. Then he shot them in cold blood. For those murders Gilmore was sent to languish on Death Row - and could confidently expect his sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. In America, no one had been executed for ten years.

But Gary Gilmore wanted to die, and his ensuing battle with the authorities for the right to do so made him into a world-wide celebrity - and ensured that his execution turned into the most gruesome media event of the decade.


The Naked and the Dead

By Norman Mailer,

Book cover of The Naked and the Dead

Why this book?

I’d argue that this is the greatest World War II novel by an American who was there. It’s another long book, but clearly written in an accessible early style Mailer learned from such literary heroes as John dos Passos and James T. Farrell. This debut novel made Mailer suddenly famous at age 25, “as if I were shot out of a cannon,” as he put it. Set on a Pacific Island near the end of the war, we learn the life stories of about ten men (enlisted and officers) as they struggle to survive and to win the battles they are forced to fight. It’s an unfailingly honest vision of actual combat and military occupation. As a veteran myself, I was impressed by Mailer’s understanding of such men (from privates to generals), of the absurdities of Army life, and of the follies of leaders whose ambitions rarely match their competence. Mailer’s often-explored theme of the enduring tendency of Americans to turn toward fascism began with his first published book and resonates for me, as it will for you, even today.

The Naked and the Dead

By Norman Mailer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Naked and the Dead as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed as one of the finest novels to come out of the Second World War, The Naked and the Dead received unprecedented critical acclaim upon its publication and has since enjoyed a long and well-deserved tenure in the American canon. This fiftieth anniversary edition features a new introduction created especially for the occasion by Norman Mailer.

Written in gritty, journalistic detail, the story follows a platoon of Marines who are stationed on the Japanese-held island of Anopopei. Composed in 1948 with the wisdom of a man twice Mailer's age and the raw courage of the young man he was, The…


The Fight

By Norman Mailer,

Book cover of The Fight

Why this book?

One of the best sports books ever written? Judge for yourself, but I think it is certainly among the best. Even if you don’t like boxing or martial arts, you’ll enjoy this eminently readable book about “the rumble in the jungle” in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, two heroic athletes in conflict. Although there are moments of self-deprecating humor and Mailer’s usual philosophical concerns, Mailer focuses squarely on the two athletes, their training camps and trainers, the people around them, and the experience of being in Africa. And then of course there is the fight itself, described in vivid and inventive detail that I found is as riveting to other readers as it is to me. The philosophical/metaphysical concerns here are part and parcel of those Mailer developed through his sixty years as a writer, but they are introduced in an easily digestible style and seem to me to fold seamlessly into the African cultures he is discovering as he covers the fight.

The Fight

By Norman Mailer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of the major innovators of New Journalism, Norman Mailer's The Fight is the real-life story of a clash between two of the world's greatest boxers, both in and out of the ring, published in Penguin Modern Classics.

Norman Mailer's The Fight focuses on the 1974 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship in Kinshasa, Zaire. Muhammad Ali met George Foreman in the ring. Foreman's genius employed silence, serenity and cunning. He had never been defeated. His hands were his instrument, and 'he kept them in his pockets the way a hunter lays his rifle back into its velvet case'. Together the…


The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America

By Norman Mailer, John Buffalo Mailer,

Book cover of The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America

Why this book?

Mailer published three nonfiction books near the end of his life to lay out his final take on issues he’d been pursuing his entire writing life and as a highly visible, often notorious, public intellectual: On God, Why Are We at War?—echoing his 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam?—and The Big Empty. I chose The Big Empty because the reader comes to understand where Mailer lands finally on so many issues he covered during his decades of political and societal journalism, with a special focus on democracy in America, its potential and its abiding threats.

The book is structured as a series of dialogues with his youngest son, John Buffalo Mailer, who in his introduction argues that such a dialogue with his father represents a necessary conversation among generations. Their topics include, among other pressing intergenerational concerns, the American presidency, endless war, American 21st-century politics, American fascism, the environment, false patriotism, political correctness, the welfare of the rich, boxing, and existentialism. To my mind, the dialogues read like a primer on what we were and are in for in the second and third decades of this century. The dialogues are prescient and act, to me at least, as little epiphanies about our parlous circumstances and possible, if difficult, directions forward.

The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America

By Norman Mailer, John Buffalo Mailer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Big Empty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Questions are posed, writes Norman Mailer, "in the hope they will open into richer insights, which in turn will bring forth sharper questions. " In this series of conversations, John Buffalo Mailer, 27, poses a series of questions to his father, challenging the reflections and insights of the man who has dominated and defined much of American letters for the past sixty years. Their wide-ranging discussions take place over the course of a year, beginning in July 2004. Set against the backdrop of George W. Bush's re-election campaign and the war in Iraq, each considers what it means to live…

The Time of Our Time

By Norman Mailer,

Book cover of The Time of Our Time

Why this book?

Published on the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Naked and the Dead, the book is an overview of Mailer’s entire writing career up to 1998, by way of introductions to and excepts from his decades of fiction and nonfiction. I make this recommendation as a risk because the book is a nearly 1300-page-long anthology. No one is going to sit down and read cover to cover, however, so I offer it as a way of seeing the sweep of a major author’s career; here you can dip in and out as you wish to see what’s up with a given work or topic at any point in Mailer’s publishing life, up to 1998. You can decide then what you want to read in the offered excerpt or in full, either from an included short work of magazine journalism or a short story, or from a whole book, should you choose to get hold of the excerpted book. Topics range from American political journalism to pop culture (Marilyn Monroe and Madonna, for instance), the cold war, Hollywood, espionage, President Kennedy, conservatism and liberalism, presidential primaries, the moon landing, women’s liberation, Watergate, and book reviews of contemporary writers. And more. My personal favorite, presented in full from The New Republic in 1992, is “By Heaven Inspired,” a rollicking take on the Republican convention in Houston that year. When I read some of this piece to graduate students in a writing workshop as an exercise in voice, they were blown away. You will be too.

The Time of Our Time

By Norman Mailer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Time of Our Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE TIME OF OUR TIME is a selection of Mailer's best work, chosen by Mailer himself, and ingeniously arranged as a literary retrospective. It is a masterly, boisterous portrait of our times, seen through the fiction and reportage of a great writer. Included are passages from THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT and THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG, as well as many of his other works and his best-known magazine pieces from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna. This giant omnibus is a testament to Mailer's enormous energies, his vast curiosity, and his amazing talent and amounts almost to a…

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