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Sunday, January 9, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Mailer' Needs More Of Mailer

Special To The Seattle Times

---------------------------- "Mailer: A Biography" by Mary V. Dearborn Houghton Mifflin, $30 ----------------------------

It's risky business writing a biography of a writer. The biographer is attempting to communicate in a medium in which the subject has most likely excelled, and so risks coming across as a poor cousin in comparison.

Also - let's face it - writers make rather dull subjects. Their occupation is the essence of non-action: sitting, thinking, typing. How to dramatize this? How to make it interesting?

Mary V. Dearborn chose the subject of her latest literary biography well, for Norman Mailer believed that a writer should be engage, or engaged, in the world around him. Mailer fought in the Pacific during World War II, he helped found the Village Voice in the 1950s, he attended political conventions and protest rallies in the 1960s, he ran with Muhammad Ali in Zaire and for mayor of New York City in 1969. He was forever thrusting his outsized ego onto the American scene.

Unfortunately, Mailer has already written extensively about all of this. Why read Dearborn on Mailer on the Pentagon, for example, when one can go straight to "The Armies of the Night"?

Dearborn, the author of biographies on Henry Miller and Louise Bryant, is best on the lesser-known aspects of Mailer's story: his family history, his childhood in Brooklyn as the son of a doting mother; his stumbling forays into sexuality at Harvard. She chronicles all six of Mailer's marriages and unnecessarily sides with the wife in each. She is sharp on Mailer's drift from anti-establishment gadfly in the 1960s to a man who, as president of PEN in the 1980s, provoked controversy by inviting Secretary of State George Schultz to give the opening speech at a 1986 conference.

Dearborn is not an official biographer ("(Mailer) said that he would neither help nor hinder me in my work," she writes in the acknowledgments), and there are moments when the story cries out for more information. In the 1950s, for example, Mailer and his second wife, Adele, visited Europe, including Germany, where, Dearborn writes, "Norman, heart in mouth, toured Buchenwald." Readers who know of Mailer's Jewishness, and the fact that he's written so little about his Jewishness, want more here, but in the next paragraph we are back in France.

Perhaps to fill the gaps, Dearborn relies heavily on literary criticism; and while at times she comes across as the sharpest member of a monthly book group (reminding us that Charley Eitel, who names names in "The Deer Park," is a homonym for "I tell"), elsewhere she writes like an undergraduate whose assuredness masks a naivete about the complexity of the world. Her text is punctuated with words like "Clearly," "Of course" and "Certainly" when what follows is not necessarily clear or certain.

She gets pedantic with the grand old man, too. After quoting a passage from "Barbary Shore," she writes, "It's not that the thinking here is bad, necessarily . . ."

Overall, Dearborn's politics seem leftist, with a faintly feminist tinge. In a speech in the early 1990s, Mailer commented (rather innocuously, it seems) upon the pernicious influence of television on the American psyche and added that "Serious novelists may be as rare as serious poets in another fifty years . . ." It's something Gore Vidal has been saying for years, but Dearborn writes: "Many women in the audience detected grandiosity in this statement, as if he were saying the novel would die with him." Which women? And why was it only women who felt this way?

Critics have often complained that Mailer injects too much of himself into his work, that he gets between his reader and his subject. Ironically, the same can be said here. There's just not enough Mailer in "Mailer," and perhaps too much Dearborn. -------------------------- Mary Dearborn will discuss "Mailer: A Biography" at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle (206-624-6600).

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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