Ken Tucker
November 16, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

Norman Mailer’s best works

The Executioner’s Song (1979)
Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winnign nonfiction novel about the life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore harnessed all of the author’s prodigious strengths as not merely a reporter but an interpreter of culture, class, and society’s penchant to create celebrities with few qualms about what actually made a person famous. The haunted longer Gilmore could not have been more different from the ebullient, privileged Mailer, yet the author’s powers of empathy and eye for detail make this a crucial American portrait.

The Armies of the Night(1968)
Another Pulizer winner, another ”nonfiction novel,” but this one is steeped in political rage and canniness. Using the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War as his subject, Mailer — who marched along with protesters such as poet Robert Lowell and the literary critic Dwight Macdonald — wrote not only about the reasons why the New Left was struggling to end the way but also about how a famous person (at this point, Mailer was one of America’s most well-known writers) tries to effect change via celebrity.

Advertisements for Myself(1959)
In this collection of essay, novel fragments, reviews, and notebook entries, the 36-year-old Mailer engaged in what critic Seymour Krim termed ”a new kind of confrontation in American journalism.” He permitted his readers to see behind the curtain of creativity, exposing insecurity about not having yet written the Great American Novel when such a thing mattered. The volume reprints his famous essay ”The White Negro,” Mailer’s prescient meditation no the moral and artistic trap of trying to be cool and hip.

Even when Mailer seemed to be selling out — picking up a big paycheck for writing the text of a coffee-table book about Marilyn Monroe — he couldn’t help but pour into his musings on the blond bombshell all his feelings of joy and rage about sex and women. He insisted on calling the result a ”novel biography,” inflated Monroe’s importance as an actress to iconic status, and salted in some incendiary speculation that Monroe may have been murdered by either the Mafia or the CIA over her reputed affair with Robert F. Kennedy.

Why Are We in Vietnam?(1967)
Commonly considered on of Mailer’s weakest novels, some of us find it a fascinating, daring book. This tale has, ostensibly, nothing to do with Vietnam — it’s the story of two teenagers, D.J. and Tex, on a hunting trip in Alaska. Yet the search for grizzly bears, a journey replete with more adolescent swagger obscenities, and doofus-male behavior than a thousand South Parks, ends up saying something significant about the country that could produce such violent, stupid men — and, by implication, our involvement in Vietnam

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