Even if you keep in mind that Norman Mailer will turn 80 in January, you still pause when he puts a hearing aid behind each of those notable ears. "The body is like an old boat in stormy seas," he shrugs. "To stay afloat, you keep throwing ballast overboard. All the senses go--hearing, eyesight, smell."
Some things stay. The cartwheeling mind, the august manner--Mailer still has those. The cerebral tough guy who wrote The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song works daily on a long novel, though he won't say what it's about. He and his wife Norris Church share a big, brick house in Provincetown, Mass., on the tip of Cape Cod. Lumbering around the kitchen to fix you a tuna sandwich, he explains why Provincetown is a good place to concentrate: "Most of the people we knew up here are dead. We don't have to go out much."
Mailer will go out this week, though. He is promoting Into the Mirror, a book about Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent arrested last year after 20 years of turning over secrets to the Russians. Turncoats are a natural subject for Mailer, who has always behaved like a man in no hurry to dispose of his own paradoxes and whose last big novel, Harlot's Ghost, was a meditation on the CIA. But Into the Mirror is not exactly by Mailer. It's a novelization by Lawrence Schiller of a Mailer screenplay, based on interviews they both conducted. In July, Schiller begins shooting a TV mini-series for cbs from Mailer's script.
Schiller sits across from Mailer now. A heavyset man with an amiable-anxious manner, he has worked with Mailer on four previous books. "It wasn't an easy road to travel with both our egos," Schiller says. It was Schiller who brought Mailer the interviews that were the seed of Mailer's last indisputably great work, The Executioner's Song, about Gary Gilmore's path to death row. Schiller figures in the book as one of the media carnivores who moved in on the story. Even if you don't count the chapter in which Schiller has diarrhea, it is not a pretty picture. Schiller says he's fine with it: "I got through that. I was no longer afraid of somebody writing strongly about me." Mailer turns to agree: "There's a subtle strength when you recognize that you no longer have to support an image of yourself."