I was not fortunate enough to be alive during the Norman Mailer heyday of the 1960s and early 1970s, when his writing on the American scene—from electoral politics to boxing to the space program to the Vietnam war and its discontents—appeared regularly in periodicals. His work was a heady match for his times, and he seemed to know it all along: if any writer was going to account for that American era, it had to be one with enough soaring intelligence, bravura aesthetic daring, and straight-up end-of-the-world cockiness to take on the wild currents of American life and make ’em make sense. Mailer did it—not with equal success in every moment, but he did it.

Of course, his heyday—or heydays, because he had several, with gaps in between—began well before the tumultuous 1960s and did not wind down for several decades. His World World II epic novel “The Naked and the Dead” appeared in 1948, and he was still writing up until the moment they put him in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, where he died early Saturday morning. His novels, essays, films, plays, and—the best stuff to my thinking—works of journalism touched on everything one could want from a Great American Writer. An index of Mailer subjects and themes would be as long as a Mailer novel, and a large section of it would be devoted to religion.
Though hardly anyone recognizes it, Norman Mailer is one of America’s essential writers on religious practice, religious belief, and religious philosophy. Whatever one makes of “On God” and the Jesus story rewrite “The Gospel According to the Son,” which are straightforward treatments—I’ve not yet made much of either—Mailer has often been bound up with thinking about religion, even as he was working on earthbound subjects. To name two examples: “The Executioner’s Song,” a fact-based novel on the Utah killer Gary Gilmore, is an exploration of the contours of America’s distinct Christianity and is itself written in the form of a holy text. “The Armies of the Night,” Mailer’s account of the protest march on the mall in Washington, D.C. in 1967, both anticipates the rise of the media-driven political religion of the Christian right and imagines an America hurling toward apocalypse.
There is much more to say here about Mailer and religion, but I’ll leave the above as a thesis statement about his life’s work. In the coming weeks, we’ll see lots of reflection on Mailer as a provocateur, on his outsized, carefully constructed public personality, and his bizarre and often reckless private life. Here’s hoping we also see careful consideration of Mailer as a writer in touch with the most enduring and unavoidable aspect of his country—its fervent preoccupation with religious faith.

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