This review, by Gore Vidal, of Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, was originally published in The Nation on January 2, 1960. Thanks to Jon Wiener for suggesting it and to Katrina vanden Heuvel for permission to reprint.
ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF.
By Norman Mailer. G.P. Putnam's Sons. 532 pp. $5.
I FIRST HEARD of Norman Mailer in the spring of 1948, just before The Naked and the Dead was published. He was living in Paris or had been living there, and just gone home when I arrived in France, my mood curiously melancholic, no doubt because of the most dubious fame I was enjoying with the publication of a third book, The City and the Pillar; at twenty-two I should have found a good deal more to please me than I did that spring and summer in the foreign cities. I do recall at one point Truman Capote telling me about The Naked and the Dead and its author: a recital which promptly aroused my competitive instincts . . . waning, let me say right off, and for reasons which are relevant to these notes. Yet at the time I remember thinking meanly: so somebody did it. Each previous war had had its big novel, yet so far there had been none for our war, though I knew that a dozen busy friends and acquaintances were grimly taking out tickets in the Grand War Novel Lottery. I had debated doing one myself and had (I still think) done something better: a small cool hard novel about men on the periphery of the action; it was called Williwaw and was written when I was nineteen and easily the cleverest young fox ever to know how to disguise his ignorance and make a virtue of his limitations. (What an attractive form the self-advertisement is: one could go on forever relighting one’s image.) Not till I began that third book did I begin to get bored with playing safe.
I took to the field and have often wondered since, in the course of many excursions, defeats, alarums and ambushes, what it might have been like to have been a safe shrewd custodian of one’s talent, playing from strength. I did not suspect then that the ambitious, rather cold-blooded young contemporary who had set out to write the big war novel and who had pulled it off would one day be in the same fix I was. Not safe. Not wise. Not admired. A fellow victim of the Great Golfer’s Age, then no more than a murmur of things to come in the Golfer’s murmurous heart.
My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since, though I have considerably changed my opinion of Mailer, as he himself has changed. Now I confess I never finished The Naked and the Dead. I read a good deal of it. I recall a fine description of men carrying a dying man down a mountain; but every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken, not from life, but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer w...read more