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Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer by Richard Bradford review – a literary sucker punch

The Naked and the Dead author was a brash and infuriating personality, but he deserves better than this dismissive biography, published to mark the centenary of his birth Norman Mailer – when not boozily brawling, dosing himself with hallucinogenic drugs and serially fornicating – was a man with a sacred mission. He regarded himself as a prophet, bringing bad news to a society that had settled into consumerist complacency during the 1950s. Americans believe that they live in God’s own country; Mailer alerted them to “the possible existence of Satan”, who might be residing next door and quietly assembling a private arsenal for use on Judgment Day. Although Mailer looked up at the sky with “religious awe”, what he saw there was a mushroom-shaped cloud that he called “the last deity”. Humanity, he declared, was reeling towards self-destruction. Now that his centenary has arrived (he was born 31 January 1923), I dare anyone – and that includes Richard Bradford, the author of this sensationalised canter through his life – to say that he was wrong. True, Mailer was an obnoxious loudmouth. In episodes that Bradford documents with slavering relish, he conducted literary disputes by butting his colleagues: “Once again words fail you,” drawled the coolly disdainful Gore Vidal after one such attack. Continue reading...

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