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Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer – Heaping on the scorn

Richard Bradford’s biography of the American author is roundly contemptuous

Tough Guy: The life of Norman Mailer
Author: Richard Bradford
ISBN-13: 978-1448218141
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £20

The challenge before the prospective biographer is one of neutrality: you want to be clear-eyed about your subject’s faults, refrain from fawning, and still get to the heart of what makes them worthy of such appraisal.

But when your subject is Norman Mailer, it’s a different ballgame. The mere facts of his debauched life preclude hagiography. After all, this is a man who stabbed his wife twice.

Richard Bradford’s initially winning approach is to give vent to his disdain for Mailer. Bradford refuses to be in Mailer’s thrall, like a long-suffering family member, rolling his eyes.

Bringing a droll restraint to bear on Mailer’s unwieldy, narcissistic life, Bradford is perceptive about Mailer’s casuistry and subterfuges: “He might continually be speaking in different tongues, but he was always speaking to and of himself.” Such insights are deployed at breakneck speed as Bradford tears through incidents, both outlandish and sidesplitting: Mailer beats up a man for calling his wife’s poodle “queer”; he challenges women to staring matches and male guests to “high-speed headbutting”; and he damningly reviews Waiting for Godot without having seen it, only to then see it and write an apology review, which still decries critics for misunderstanding it.


Such unconstrained behaviour often tipped over into outright nastiness, reaching its terrifying culmination on the night of a party for his mayoral candidacy in 1960 – one extolling the cathartic power of violence and “daring the unknown”. After several fistfights, Mailer nearly killed his second wife.

Bradford traces the trajectory of Mailer’s morbid fixations, which he indulged “not simply as a voyeur but as part of his aesthetic credo”. After a fire broke out at a venue in Boston killing hundreds, a young Mailer enthusiastically perused the dead, fascinated by “how shrunken the bodies” were after being “thoroughly charred”.

Bradford keeps heaping on the scorn: Mailer’s poetry is “execrable”, his polemics “incomprehensible”. You’re waiting for a more conciliatory note to be struck, but in vain. He is roundly contemptuous of Mailer, which, however sincere, means the biography lacks even-handedness. Even a successful takedown must give the devil his due – amid all the incoherence, Mailer’s writing could be incandescent. Besides, being the subject of a biography is a frail position, calling out for grace: you possess none of the hindsight visited upon you by the biographer.