A new Norman Mailer biography shows that his life may have been his greatest work of art.
Credit: Elena Seibert / Corbis

Norman Mailer was sitting in regal fashion, two canes leaning against his armchair like scepter-clubs. It was Mailer's 84th birthday party, and though his Brooklyn Heights brownstone teemed with his famous friends, he was in a state of magnificent isolation. A lifetime of brawls, controversies, and Pulitzer Prizes electrified the space between him and his guests.

You half expected to see him stand up and head-butt someone, as he once did to Gore Vidal in the greenroom of 'The Dick Cavett Show.' Or to suddenly hear, out of the distant past, jeers from feminists at the now-mythic 1971 Town Hall meeting in New York, where Mailer puckishly proclaimed that it was women's biological destiny to mate and have children.

That was a decade after he drunkenly stabbed his second wife, nearly killing her, and two years after Gloria Steinem went to bed with him, out of kindness, during his 1969 campaign for mayor of New York.

As J. Michael Lennon writes in his just-published biography, 'Norman Mailer: A Double Life,' Mailer was "singular, unprecedented, and irreplaceable." An old friend of Mailer's, Lennon (and his book) lacks much in the way of critical detachment, but his intimate conversations with his subject over three decades present a writer who offers an epochal contrast with our own time. Today's most prominent American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, likes to bird-watch and mostly keep to himself. Mailer, through more than 30 published books, helped shape American life, even as he was chronicling it.

Mailer came into my own ordinary-proportioned existence (I'm more the bird-watching than the head-butting type) in 2007, months before his death. I had written, for 'The New York Times Book Review,' a review of 'The Castle in the Forest,' which would be his last novel. In fact, the review had turned into a 6,200-word essay in which I declared Mailer to be one of America's greatest writers.

Sure enough, the author of 'Advertisements for Myself' telephoned to thank me – the caller ID read: "Mailer, Norman/Brooklyn, NY" – and invited me to his impending birthday party.

I was thrilled. Like Ernest Hemingway, whom he modeled himself after, Mailer lived out his work through his personality, in full public view. Conversing with him was like entering into a dialogue with a historical force.

Before I knew it, Mailer was challenging me at his party. Referring to the legendary crow's nest he had built for himself at the top of his townhouse, arrived at by means of a complex maze of ropes and ladders, he dared me to climb it. "I'm too drunk," I said. And besides, I added, I couldn't do it in my Prada boots. He laughed. With my review, I had planted a gigantic, consequential kiss on his ego. He was going to pour himself out to me like a fine old wine.

But not that night. Instead he asked me to lunch a few weeks hence, on Valentine's Day, when "we can really sit down and talk."

Along with being excited, I was a little nervous. The dark side of Mailer's generosity was that he acted on every impulse, which made him vulnerable to embarrassment and failure. When Hemingway never responded to Mailer's gift of his latest novel – 'The Deer Park,' about moral depravity in Hollywood – Mailer rocketed into a manic phase for months. Of course, Mailer's accompanying note couldn't have helped: "If you do not answer," he wrote to Papa, "or if you answer with the kind of crap you use to answer unprofessional writers, sycophants, brownnosers, etc., then fuck you, and I will never attempt to communicate with you again."

No wonder Lennon's biography is a swashbuckling literary adventure story about a monomaniac whose life and work were an attempt, as Mailer once put it, to enter "into the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm, and Time."

The snowy afternoon of my lunch with Mailer is now so deep in my memory that it has probably become part of my genes. Norris, Mailer's stunning and gracious southern-born wife – his sixth – made us tuna fish sandwiches. We washed them down with a bottle of Smoking Loon cabernet.

Mailer liked to employ various accents. That day he entertained me with performances of an Irish brogue and the speaking style of the British upper class. Knowing that I had clashed with a prominent magazine owner, he told me the story, unfolding through his brogue, of how as payback for a negative review, he had punched the man in the stomach as Mailer was walking out of a Provincetown restaurant.

The common conception of a genius is someone with rare intellect. Mailer was all instinct lined with thought. That was how he had reinvented journalism, the memoir, and the novel. I sat, fascinated, as he described for me his belief in reincarnation, using his hands to pantomime the motions of transmigrating souls flying to their new forms, he said, like birds streaming over the East River that lay outside his large picture window.

He was daunting, and I was mostly speechless, but I found an opening. Mailer had always loved boxing – the photograph of him arm-wrestling with Muhammad Ali in Puerto Rico is iconic. I told him that I had just seen the great fight movie Fat City.

"The best boxing scenes," he said, "aren't just about fighting. They reveal the essential personalities of the men in the ring." I had a flash. "Like what Freud said about sex," I said. Mailer nodded his approval and stared intently at me. Of course he approved. He revealed himself in every word he wrote, every gesture he made.

Three hours had passed. We said our goodbyes. Nine months later Mailer died of renal failure. Lennon relates that just before his end, Mailer was planning to publish an argument about how boredom leads to cancer. Boredom was as much Mailer's enemy as having been born a nice Jewish boy.

He spent his life soaring, for better and for worse, beyond his dull, decent origins. Too bad I never climbed that crow's nest. I would have had the same perspective on the world that Mailer did just standing, in that magnificent, troubled isolation, on the street.