The first book you read by an author you come to love holds a special place for you. It doesn't matter if the book is considered a "classic" or if it's considered a "lesser work" by the critics - it's the work that opened your eyes to a new horizon of opportunities, of language and art that was previously locked to you. The first Norman Mailer book I read was Tough Guys Don't Dance. And while "not his masterpiece" and "a lesser" work seemed to be the prevailing view of critics, it's blend of pulp genre, muscular literary prose and trademark dialog made an immediate and last impression on me. I was hooked, utterly and completely bowled over by a master of language.
From Tough Guys Don't Dance I moved onto The Deer Park, and then to An American Dream, somehow skipping over the milestones in Mailer's career. That changed when, the first Winter I lived by myself, in a dilapidated one-bedroom apartment in the historic section of Albany I picked up a copy of The Executioner's Song. Moving from 200 -300 pages into a nonfiction tome rounding out at over 1,000 pages was daunting, but I had decided earlier to begin reading more nonfiction, and starting with an author I had recently come to love was a good place to start.
It's rare that I put the memories of a book together with the memories of the circumstances around reading a book, but when the two are inextricably tied together, it makes for a powerful impression. One such memory is re-reading the Mark Twain Library editions of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn 3 years ago when I was both mourning the loss of my grandfather and sitting on a jury for a medical malpractice case. Each morning I'd take the train to Jamaica and arrive at the courthouse an hour early, carrying my books and a bottle of water, reading until the court officer brought us to the jury room. The other lasting memory is sitting in that old apartment, my girlfriend (who would become the Missus a few years later) 4 hours away in New York City, the wind and snow howling and beating against the enormous front windows, and reading The Executioner's Song huddled under a dozen blankets, fingers freezing but completely unwilling to stop turning page after page of the life of Gary Gilmore, and his descent into violence and ultimate wish to be executed after his capture and imprisonment. It's a memory that I can recall with perfect clarity, and is one I'll recount whenever anyone asks me why I love to read so much.
After a dose of what was considered a Mailer essential, I quickly devoured more. Harlot's Ghost, The Gospel According to the Son, Oswald' Tale, and then finally to The Naked and the Dead, the book that made a 24-year old ex-army grunt famous. Reading The Naked and the Dead is akin to having your head explode, refurbished and put back on with the following words burned with a soldering iron on the inside of your skull:
The Naked and the Dead did that to me. So did The Executioner's Song. So did The Brothers Karamazov. So did Great Expectations and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick and Cat's Cradle and In Cold Blood and Swann's Way and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Deathbird Stories and The Lord of the Rings and A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Stand and King Lear and dozens of others.
But Mailer did it like no other. And now he's gone and there won't be a sequel to Harlot's Ghost. On God: An Uncommon Conversation has just been released, and it will serve as bookend to a long line of incredible works from one of the last Bears of American Letters.