Tough Guys Don’t Dance, but They Do Die: Norman Mailer 1923-2007

Norman Mailer was a contradiction. He was seen by some as the left personified and by others as an oppressor of rights. It was all relative. The guy lived hard, drank hard and wrote harder.

According to CNN: (Mailer) had nine children, made a quixotic bid to become mayor of New York, produced five forgettable films, dabbled in journalism, flew gliders, challenged professional boxers, was banned from a Manhattan YWHA for reciting obscene poetry, feuded publicly with writer Gore Vidal and crusaded against the women’s liberation movement.

He claimed his being labeled by Time magazine as a sexist pig as “the greatest injustice in American life.” The guy loved women. He married six of them and only stabbed one.

Mailer inspired me, not so much to stab my wife, but to write. His novel “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” was a turning point for me in my love with literature. That was when I learned that I could rub some grit in my prose and still be legit. If Steinbeck was a piece of toast then Mailer was a thick layer of peanut butter. Extra crunchy. He paved my way to the next group that would move and ruin me, Bukowski and Burroughs, and the likes of which that would form the world in which my characters were able to be free of fear and tact. I learned that a character could be real, even when their reality was skewed from my own.

His is a dying breed, but it is not dead.

He once said, “fiction was everything. The novel, the big novel, the driving force. We all wanted to be Hemingway … I don’t think the same thing can be said anymore. I don’t think my work has inspired any writer, not the way Hemingway inspired me.”

I too wanted to be Hemingway. Mailer was no slouch though. The guy won exactly two more Pulitzer Prizes than me. I’m sure that has inspired plenty.

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