Gregory Kirschling
November 16, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

When EW went to Provincetown, Mass., in January to interview Norman Mailer at his oceanfront home, the literary heavyweight, then 83, looked to be in rough shape. Unable to move without the assistance of two canes, the author of The Naked and the Dead and The Executioner’s Songgreeted guests from his wicker seat in the living room, quickly reminding everyone to speak up, since his hearing was shot. And although he was bundled from head to toe in dark sweats and a fleece vest, the bulky uniform couldn’t hide the diminishments of age signaled by his tiny, wrinkled head, every formerly meaty feature seemingly shrunken except his famous jutting ears.

Perhaps this is not surprising, given the news that the grandest, unruliest, and most public writer of the 20th century died on Nov. 10 of renal failure in New York. But what was startling about interviewing the old man in his living room 10 months ago was how powerfully Mailer’s legendary mind still whirred, so close to the end. In his time as a celebrity thinker, which spanned 60 years, Mailer boisterously, tenaciously grappled with just about every major American topic — war, politics, sex, sports, movies, space, God — in more than 30 books and countless public appearances.

And in Provincetown earlier this year, however physically weakened he was, Mailer still zestfully cracked jokes, argued, and made wild pronouncements, all with a familiar shine in his eye. ”I think we can be noble,” he said at one point, speaking for no less than himself and his fellow man. ”And I think we can be full of s—. We are both. I’m much opposed to the idea that humankind is one thing or another — we’re a containment of opposites, and the only way we understand ourselves is to recognize the war of opposites within us.”

Mailer was always at war — with himself, with readers, TV audiences, governments, or whoever or whatever raised his ire or got in his way. Every great success, every towering book, was usually followed by a bout of embarrassing tabloid excess. For decades, he swaggered in public no less forcefully than his firepowered prose swaggered across the page, unwavering in the conviction that it was his job as a writer to shake things up and piss people off.

Raised in Brooklyn and New Jersey, Mailer entered Harvard at age 16 to study aeronautical engineering, but then discovered literature in his freshman year. Soon he was writing 3,000 words a day as a novelist-in-training, never bothering to change his major because his easier engineering course work gave him time to write. After college he ended up in the Army during World War II, and about 15 months after he returned home from the South Pacific he finished The Naked and the Dead, a gigantic war novel (and gigantic best-seller) that first announced him as a man of ambition out to — as he memorably put it later in his genre-busting proto-memoir Advertisements for Myself — make ”a revolution in the consciousness of our time.”

”That’s not entirely a vain impulse, because my life has been affected by great writers,” Mailer explained in January. ”They changed my consciousness, and enlarged my sense of things. I’d be a smaller person if I hadn’t read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Hemingway, or Faulkner, Stendhal, Dickens, and so forth. They enriched my existence, and so I want to enrich other people’s existence.”

Sometimes the only thing that got in Mailer’s way was Mailer himself. He dealt with his mega-celebrity after The Naked and the Dead in the 1950s mainly by blowing it up with dynamite. His next two novels — both willfully difficult — flopped. When not drinking or experimenting with drugs, he wrote blistering essays like ”The White Negro” and helped start the Village Voice newspaper, but he hit bottom in 1960, when he stabbed his second wife, Adele, at a party. (Mailer was married six times, and he leaves behind eight children and one stepchild.) In years to come — while running a scrappy failed campaign for mayor of New York, or sparring unpleasantly with Gore Vidal on Dick Cavett’s show — Mailer seemed to enjoy playing up his public persona as a blowhard, leaving everyone to wonder just how much of it was for real.

”People will tell you that he was offensive, he was a chauvinist, he was a stabber of his wife, he was jealous, disrespectful, all that,” says Gay Talese, a friend for 52 years. ”Well, some grand figures — Picasso, Hemingway, Sinatra — have that dark side. In Mailer’s case, that existed. But he was one of the great people of my lifetime. He was never a snob, and he was never too self-important to talk to ordinary people, which he did at great lengths. He was very open to new experiences.”

Along with Talese and Tom Wolfe, Mailer became a driving force behind the New Journalism of the 1960s, work that resulted in the supreme irony of his career: He’ll probably be best remembered not for his novels, but for his nonfiction. His journalism work led first to The Armies of the Night, a microscopic and magnificent account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon, and then to The Executioner’s Song, a 1,000-page 1979 ”true-life novel” about death-row inmate Gary Gilmore. The books, which both won the Pulitzer, are widely recognized as his best, certainly outshining novels he spent many more years writing, such as the widely derided Egypt epic Ancient Evenings or the doorstop CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost.

The idea that his influential journalism may outlast his novels unsettled Mailer in January: ”I think the novel’s a higher form, that’s all.” But he’d long since given up the idea that a novel could change the modern world or, in fact, revolutionize consciousness. ”You can’t do that, no one can, but you can try,” he told EW. ”But I do have a sense that my generation did fail. There were things we didn’t like about America — like television — that prospered. And things that we liked that didn’t. Specifically, I love the novel, and the serious novel has not prospered.”

In the last months of his life, Mailer was at peace with that —”I feel more sane than I’ve ever felt” — and he was no longer as concerned with how his words would stack up against the output of the other great writers of his time, let alone Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. ”History will tell us who’s the best,” he said. ”And history can be wrong, too.”

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