Talk about chutzpah. A friend of mine once asked Norman Mailer if he'd read several short stories my friend had written. The request was made at a long-ago Telluride Film Festival, where Mailer had come to be Mailer and to show portions of "Maidstone," a film he shot in the Hamptons in 1968.
When a section entitled "The Death of the Director," reached the screen, the audience in Telluride's Sheridan Opera House applauded, an act of critical cruelty about which Mailer grumbled. It seemed to Mailer -- and maybe he was right -- that a festival audience should be receptive to all kinds of work. Maybe he thought it inappropriate that a sophisticated group of cinema enthusiasts would resort to the kind of boisterous expression more typically associated with the boxing matches Mailer loved.
Anyway, Mailer gave my friend an address where he could send his scratchings, but also issued a warning. Mailer promised if he read the work, he'd tell my friend exactly what he thought. There'd be no holding back. That didn't sound good to me, but I guess it's how things should be. If you dare to ask the oracle a question, you probably ought to be man enough to handle the answer. I'm not sure that Mailer's response would have been kind, but it probably would have been right, maybe too right.
I don't think my friend ever heard back from Mailer, and if he didn't, he certainly won't now. Mailer died Saturday at the age of 84.
Over the next few days, you'll read plenty of commentary about Mailer: the writer, politician, journalist, boxer, mayoral candidate and provocateur. But unlike most who'll be assessing Mailer's legacy, I once sat next to him at a movie. It was during that same distantly remembered Telluride Film Festival. I can't recall the film.
Of course, I was awe struck. As a reader, I always relied on Mailer to say something that would eviscerate the cliches of the moment. I never read a more compelling writer about the art that can emerge when two men try to beat each other's brains out in a boxing ring. Mailer also wrote great non-fiction pieces that eclipsed anything that all but a few journalists have managed to write: “The Armies of the Night” (1968) and “The Executioner’s Song” (1979).
Beyond that, Mailer seemed to live a big life. No matter what he did, he usually loomed above his material. And I have to say that sitting next to him in the Sheridan Opera House made me nervous. I was a little intimidated to be sharing the same armrest with a writer who made no secret about the fact that he was physically and spiritually prepared to wrestle with greatness -- and who sometimes won.
A trivial bit of business to be sure, but I remember it clearly. Why not? Mailer didn't only write about momentous events, he seemed to be one.