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Sunday, June 14, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mailer's Fans Will Likely Enjoy Odd Collection

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "The Time of Our Time" by Norman Mailer Random House, $39.50 -------------------------------

Ever since "Advertisements for Myself" I have doubted Norman Mailer's ability to judge his own writing.

In that seminal 1959 volume, he sorts through the unfinished flotsam from his first professional decade and manages to get it all wrong. The World War II stories - quite good - are dismissed in favor of pedantic prologues like "Advertisements for Myself on the Way Out." He pouts over the fate of his second novel, "The Barbary Shore," when it was at best a sophomore effort.

Now, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of his critically acclaimed World War II best seller, "The Naked and the Dead," Random House has issued a compendium of Mailer's work, selected by Mailer, and arranged chronologically by subject rather than publication date. Anything on the JFK assassination, for example, appears in the 1963 section, regardless of when he wrote it.

"The perceptions of a man no longer young," Mailer explains in the prologue, "could now be posed against insights the writer had once set down decades earlier."

So is he any better at judging the worth of his work? Some things missing

Yes and no. Every reviewer, every fan, will find some favorite passage missing. Surely, I thought, Mailer could have included that scene in "The Naked and the Dead" where American soldiers stumble upon week-old Japanese corpses. Why not the moment in "An American Dream," post-murder, in which everything comes existentially alive for Rojack? Or Mailer's brilliant essay on the first Ali-Frazier fight?

The form chosen is an odd one, too, almost out of necessity, for Mailer's mind is fertile and much has grown there in his 50 prolific years. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry. Philosophy and straight journalism. Politics, boxing, literary criticism. One would think that arranging the book by subject matter would make the most sense, but Mailer, throughout his career, has been nothing if not unconventional.

Yet, one begins to suspect that the form chosen was designed not so much to celebrate Mailer's reputation as upend it. For his rep is this: Mailer started out with a bang but never really lived up to the promise of "The Naked and the Dead." Yes, he's written great journalism since then, but what novel has bettered his first? "The Barbary Shore"? Stunted. "The Deer Park"? Hollywood. "An American Dream"? Misogynistic. "The Executioner's Song"? Nonfiction. "Harlot's Ghost"? A 1,300-page book that ends, "To be continued." `Harlot's Ghost' featured

Yet because his CIA novel "Harlot's Ghost" encompasses so much of American life, from pre-World War II to the 1980s, it is ideal for showcasing here. And showcase it Mailer does. While there are only two selections from "The Naked and the Dead," "Harlot's Ghost" is encountered 17 different times, amounting to almost 200 pages.

And it's brilliant prose. Mailer's main themes are present - particularly the notion of converting fear into fortitude - but they are not as heavy-handed as in his other work. Reading "The Time of Our Time" made me finally want to read the mammoth "Harlot's Ghost." I became almost annoyed when those sections ended and I was forced to encounter Marilyn Monroe or early television or political conventions.

Obviously, "The Time of Our Time" is for Norman Mailer fans. Since 1973, Mailer's magazine essays have never been collected in book form, but here they all are, including his take on Watergate, Jimmy Carter, the Gulf War, and the 1996 presidential election.

For other readers, if you're interested in Mailer's work, I'd suggest a good used-bookstore. It's a cheaper way to encounter our greatest living writer.

Erik Lundegaard is a Seattle writer.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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