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New Hardcover Quantity Available: Mediaoutlet Springfield, VA, U. Although he has produced his fair share of great books, the many duds are magnified by his keen sense of expectation. Too often they come saddled with advance hype as his definitive masterpiece, only to drop stillborn onto the birthing floor, defeated by the scale of Mailer's ambition.

He thought "Harlot's Ghost," his vast, 1,page novel of the CIA, seven years in the writing, would be his big one.

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It wasn't. Mailer blames this on bad timing; in , when the book came out, the Cold War was out of fashion.

Norman Mailer Quick Change Artist

Instead, the book that many now consider the landmark of its era is his "An American Dream" , a proto-"American Psycho" in which Mailer's protagonist, Stephen Rojack, doubles as the novel's antagonist, at once sympathetic and despicable. Likewise, Mailer entertained high hopes for "Ancient Evenings," a sprawling epic set in the Egypt of Ramses, which took even longer to write than "Harlot's Ghost. Even today it has a remarkable urgency and topicality that will surely outlive most of Mailer's novels. One reason for the discrepancy is that while Mailer is a master of language he is rarely a master of plot.

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In "The Spooky Art" he makes a virtue of the fact, arguing that plot constricts the writer. In fact, his books work best when the plot is provided by historical events, as with "The Executioner's Song," in which his hyperattentive eye for detail has the vigor of his best fiction, without the flaws of the worst. He called it a "true life novel," and his refusal to judge his subject gives it a depth and integrity all the more powerful for what it seems to say about American life. You can feel Mailer's sympathy for his characters throughout, but it's a severe sympathy that never skates over Gilmore's faults.

Mailer was well-equipped to write about violence; as a writer the metaphor he seems to reach for most often is that of the boxer, and his novels have a tendency to romanticize violence as a reflection of male virility. There are contradictions.

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Mailer is always creating homosexual characters and in the case of his Picasso biography, inventing homosexual encounters and when not in Brooklyn, he makes his home in the gay summer resort of Provincetown, Mass. If there is a juicier irony, I'd like to know what it is.

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Even his old sparring partner, Gore Vidal, is now a friend and sourpuss-in-arms -- literature's Grumpy Old Men, reminiscing, according to Mailer, "in mutually sour fashion over the various pirates, cut-throats, racketeers, assassins, pimps, rape artists and general finks we had encountered in our separate travels. Although not even Mailer would be so presumptuous, you get the feeling that he identifies most with Tolstoy, whose books, he notes approvingly, "carried to us an image of a huge landscape peopled with figures who changed the landscape.

Contemporary literature is his blind spot; Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon and Alice Sebold, among others, have revived the "spooky" art of the literary bestseller, but Mailer is too preoccupied with himself to have noticed. While he concedes, for example, that "Franzen writes superbly well sentence for sentence," Mailer is "not happy with the achievement