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'Great chronicler' and giant of American writing, Norman Mailer dies at 84

American novelist Norman Mailer, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, has died of renal failure at a New York City hospital.

Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Norman Mailer, lionized for his creative non-fiction style and his combative nature, died early Saturday at the age of 84, his literary executor said.

Mailer, who had undergone lung surgery in October, died of renal failure at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, said J. Michael Lennon, who is also the author's official biographer.

Norman Mailer reflects on turning 80 during an interview in his Brooklyn Heights apartment in this Jan. 28, 2003 photo in New York. ((Kathy Willens/Associated Press))

Mailer was a prolific writer who explored all forms of the written word, from novels and screenplays to essays, poems and many works of non-fiction.

"Obviously, he was a great American voice," said a tearful Joan Didion, who struggled to speakupon learning of Mailer's death.

"He could do anything he wanted to do — the movie business, writing, theatre, politics," author Gay Talese said Saturday. "He never thought the boundaries were restricted. He'd go anywhere and try anything."

Many other writers weighed in on Mailer's oeuvre as a great American novelist.

"He was really the great chronicler of his time, the champion of personal reportage. His output was prodigious, his range of interests very wide," said writer E.L. Doctorow.

"To me, it's like a thousand people just left the room," noted journalist Pete Hamill, who added that Mailer never repeated himself and "always made us imagine other lives, other choices, other varieties of human folly, grandeur and capacity for evil."

Imagined self as 'Prince of Truth'

"I become an actor, a quick-change artist, as if I can trap the Prince of Truth in the act of switching a style,"Mailer wrote in his collection of essays and letters, Advertisements for Myself(1959).

A celebrated author who often courted controversy, Mailer captured the Pulitzer twice and received the National Book Award in 1968 for The Armies of the Night.
Boxing great Muhammad Ali takes a swing at Norman Mailer, who also knew how to box, at a party celebrating the author's 50th anniversary as a writer in New York on May 6, 1998. ((Dave Allocca/Associated Press))

In 2005, the National Book Foundation awarded him the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Mailer catapulted to fame in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead, a novel based on his experiences in the U.S. army as a rifleman in the South Pacific. The book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 11 weeks.

Mailer pioneered, along with Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Didion, a new style of non-fiction writing called New Journalism or creative non-fiction. The Naked and the Dead remains one of the classics of New Journalism.

"[Mailer] is a great and obsessed stylist, a writer to whom the shape of the sentence is the story," Didion once said of her friend.

Born Jan. 31, 1923 in New Jersey to Fanny Schneider Mailer and Isaac (Barney) Barnett Mailer, young Norman grew up in the scrappy neighbourhoods of Brooklyn.

He graduated from high school in 1939 and entered Harvard University at the age of 16. Four years later, Mailer had a degree in engineering and in 1944, was drafted into the army.

After the critical acclaim of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer's next two novels — Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955) — floundered critically and commercially. He then turned to journalism and helped found The Village Voice, writing a weekly column.

He returned to the novel with An American Dream in 1965 and Why Are We In Vietnam? (1967), which was nominated for a National Book Award.

"A really great novel does not have something to say," he once said. "It has the ability to stimulate the mind and spirit of the people who come in contact with it."

A year later, The Armies of the Night won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, returning Mailer to form.

Provokedwithviews on U.S. political life

Over the next decade, Mailer wrote constantly, publishing a book on the Apollo 11 moon landing (Of A Fire on The Moon), a critical essay on the women's liberation movement (The Prisoner of Sex) and a detailed description of the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire (The Fight) in 1976.

Mailer cemented his iconic New Journalism status during the 1960s with a series of Esquire columns, essays and political reports.
Authors, from left, Gay Talese, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal gather at a party following a production of George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan In Hell in 1993. ((Ron Frehm/Associated Press))

"In America few people will trust you unless you are irreverent," he said, and he satisfied the appetite for irreverence with counter-cultural essays on violence, hysteria, sex and crime.

Always pugnacious and trained as a boxer, he was a thorn in the side of several U.S. administrations. His Armies of the Night is an examination of a celebrated Vietnam war protest in which Mailer himself is arrested.

His coverage of both Democratic and Republican conventions exposedthe dark underbelly of American politics. His acid pen castigated corporate greed, plastics, the decline of political debate and the rape of nature.

"America is a hurricane," he once wrote, "and the only people who do not hear the sound are those fortunate, if incredibly stupid and smug, White Protestants who live in the centre, in the serene eye of the big wind."

Challenged leading feminists

His disagreements with feminists are legendary. He took on Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem in Prisoner of Sex, defending machismo while criticizing the new political correctness of the 1970s.

He called feminist critic Kate Millet "the Battling Annie of some new prudery" and a "literary Molotov" for questioning the value of writers such as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and Mailer himself.
Mailer, shown in this 1984 file photo, has been hailed as America's literary conscience and provocateur. ((David Pickoff/Associated Press))

Mailer was always searching for the next thing to do, to broaden and deepen his skills and to reach out to the public.

"The final purpose of art is to intensify, even, if necessary, to exacerbate, the moral consciousness of people," he said.

In 1979, he published The Executioner's Song, a non-fiction novel on the life and death of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who would become thefirst person in the U.S. executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

It won Mailer his second Pulitzer and many accolades and distinctions.

The book was turned into a TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones, with a script adapted by Mailer himself. He received an Emmy nomination for his screenplay.

Mailer then waded into the world of films, producing and directing an adaptation of his book The Deer Park. Wild 90 (1967) opened to less-than-stellar reviews. A year later, his second film, Beyond the Law, got better reviews but paltry audiences and his third film, Maidstone (1971), based on The Armies of the Night, had mixed reactions.

His 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe was contentious because its final chapter contends she was murdered by FBI and CIA agents due to her supposed affair with Robert F. Kennedy.

Mailer had better luck on the screen in 1987, when he wrote and directed Tough Guys Don't Dance, adapted from his murder mystery novel of the same name.

His massive tome, the 1,310-page Harlot's Ghost, was highly lauded if typically sprawling. The novel chronicles the people and the plottings of the CIA during crucial historical moments in American history.

Mailer's first new novel in 10 years was published this year. The Castle in the Forest is a fictional re-telling of Adolf Hitler's boyhood through the eyes of Dieter, a devil assigned by Satan to develop the young Adolf.

The Guardian called the book "electrifying and peculiar" while the New York Times hailed Mailer as a writer who "doesn't inhabit these historical figures so much as possess them."

Mailer's personal life was always sticky.A man who literally and figuratively loved to box and spar, he made enemies in the women's movement, in politics and was involved in many feuds, litigations and imbroglios.

Mailer wed six times and had nine children. He is survived by his sixth wife, painter Norris Church, whom hemarriedin 1980.

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