At the age of twenty-five, Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead (1948), a novel based on the author’s experiences during the World War II. The rise of U.S. totalitarianism—a term intended to include all the powerful sociopolitical forces that master and inhibit individual freedom—is ominously forecast in the novel, and would become one of the author’s obsessive concerns.
In his prodigious output of fiction, essays, and journalism over the last half century or so, Mailer has continued to explore the corrupting nature of U.S. power structures, finding in the nation’s government, media, armed forces, commercial behemoths, and mass-market products the causes as well as the effects of a pervasive spiritual decrepitude.
As he implies in his novel Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), totalitarianism’s depredations are evident both in individual Americans, who have generally become incapable of meeting genuine tests of courage, and in government policy, which showed a similar cowardice by launching a military campaign in Vietnam against an overmatched opponent.
Mailer’s interest in the ability of powerful men to manipulate history, including the daily lives of average citizens, is prominent in almost all his work. In An American Dream(1964), he suggests, rather presciently, the existence of a sinister, shadowy network of influence involving the highest levels of U.S. government, the Mafia, the CIA, the media, and big business. Mailer himself has shown a lifetime attraction to this shadowy world, confessing “it would not have been impossible for me to have spent my life in the CIA”.
However, the author’s tendency is to locate the ultimate source of watershed events not in the cunning of specific potentates, but in the mysterious struggle of good and evil in the universe—an unpredictable interaction, influenced by and in turn influencing human lives, which inevitably generates uncanny “coincidences” whenever the stakes (personal, political, historical) are high.
Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979), a partly fictionalized account of the last few months of the life of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, is especially concerned with inexplicable patterns in the world and the temptation to read design into supposedly random events.
This concern also permeates Mailer’s massive novel Harlot’s Ghost (1991), whose protagonist, a fictional member of the CIA named Harry Hubbard, has firsthand knowledge of three decades of cold war espionage.
The CIA is represented as being involved in numerous foreign and domestic intrigues (including attempts, cosponsored by the Mafia, on Fidel Castro’s life), while Hubbard and others speculate on the possibility that some element in the agency was responsible for organizing or covering up the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Among other theories Mailer’s characters entertain (but do not claim to be able to prove) is the notion that Marilyn Monroe’s death was a murder arranged either by John or Robert Kennedy, or by Jimmy Hoffa in an attempt to frame the Kennedy brothers.
Mailer himself played an important role in popularizing Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories in the 1960s, not least with his call for a new commission to investigate the case, claiming he “would trust a commission headed by Edmund Wilson before I trusted another by Earl Warren”. Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery (1995) is a psychobiography of Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Armed with voluminous research into Oswald’s life in the Soviet Union in the years before Kennedy’s death, including interviews with members of the KGB who kept the U.S. defector under surveillance, Mailer weighs the evidence implicating the usual suspects (the Mafia, the CIA, the KGB, pro- or anti-Castro zealots), and finally concludes that Oswald probably acted alone. Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner whose murder of Oswald was captured on live television, is also judged to have acted, in all likelihood, without external assistance.