- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A TICKET TO THE CIRCUS: A MEMOIR

By Norris Church Mailer

Random House, $26,

416 pages, illustrated

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

There’s just something so fascinating about the last wives of men famous for, among other things, being married many times. From Henry VIII’s Katherine Parr to Barbara Sinatra, it seems undeniable that these ladies must possess some special qualities that enable them to hang on until the end. Sure, they might have had a slightly easier time than their hapless predecessors: By the time they got there, there couldn’t have been quite as much fire to contend with.

But the husbands in question are still the same men, and the wives must have had to contend with much the same set of problems. In “A Ticket to the Circus,” Norris Church Mailer’s surprisingly honest, graceful and forthright memoir of life with Norman as his sixth and final wife, you get a pretty good idea what she was up against - and also what drew her to him and kept her there through thick and thin.

Because these multiply-married men are not just a heap of trouble to their wives. They generally possess more than their share of charm and other attractive qualities to reel in the wives one after another. Mrs. Mailer is adept at conveying the niceness in her husband’s character, which others who knew him less intimately observed there along with the obvious pugnacity, willfulness and selfishness. She does not minimize, gloss over or otherwise sugarcoat his flaws; in fact, she is an acute, if fond, observer of them.

Yet you sense an immense, overwhelming fondness and affection for him - and vice versa, which gives you some notion of the power over him that her qualities gave her.

Mrs. Mailer shows herself in these pages to be ingenuous but intelligent, warmhearted but willful. Intuitive too, and right from the beginning, she realized that in Norman Mailer she had met someone very special. It is key to their relationship that she was not just another groupie, and so they were both conscious that it was the man, not the author, with whom she was falling in love.

With Norman Mailer, though, things were always pretty complicated. It was true that, as he told her, he was separated from wife No. 4, but before he could marry the author of this book, there was another lady who needed, albeit briefly, to become the fifth Mrs. Mailer in order to legitimize their child. It is both affecting and amusing to see Mailer’s concern with conventional values notwithstanding his swashbuckling lifestyle.

Norris Mailer had to contend with a bevy of ex-wives and stepchildren, and although she does not minimize the rough passages with them, it is a tribute to the kind of person she is that she seems to have won over all of them. Some were more difficult than others: It is not surprising that the daughter who most resented her initially was just about her own age. But if it was tough to deal with this hydra-headed baggage that her much-married husband brought to their union, there was one Mrs. Mailer whom it was even more important to befriend.

For wives came and went, but mothers endure, and the redoubtable Fanny Mailer was the most important woman in Norman’s life. Initially skeptical about this latest addition to the family on account of her Southern Baptist background and an admirable loyalty to the current incumbent, she was soon won over. One senses that without this particular victory, there could have been no happy ending for Norris and Norman.

Not that all was smooth sailing or blue skies in the three decades they were together. The most interesting and heartfelt passages of this book concern its author’s revelation of her surprise and shock when she discovered that her husband had, in fact, been flagrantly unfaithful to her.

If at this point you are saying, “Duh; she should have known,” she would agree with you and much more: Gullibility is only one of the charges she lashes herself with. But after separating and licking her wounds, she comes to the hard-won conclusion “that I really loved Norman, for better or for worse.” Reading her unsparing account of how she came to terms with all this, you realize that what in another might seem facile is anything but here.

Although she has for many years been battling a cancer long since dubbed terminal, Mrs. Mailer has not lost her sense of humor, which is as crucial as her honesty in lighting up her narrative. Recounting her memories in their native Arkansas of a youthful Bill Clinton, before he had started his string of electoral victories, she drops this bombshell with her customary candor and unwillingness to shield herself or others from it:

“Years later in New York, after all the scandals broke, a man I knew socially who was in politics said, ‘I guess he slept with every woman in Arkansas except you, Norris.’ ‘Sorry Russ,’ I replied, ‘I’m afraid he got us all.’”

In a “Note From the Author” at the beginning of the book, Mrs. Mailer writes disarmingly in that way she has of directly addressing the reader that makes her so endearing:

“It’s funny, the things that mean so much to one person and nothing to another, the small thoughtless comment that inadvertently cuts to the quick. I didn’t intend to hurt anyone in the telling of my story, and if I did, I apologize now, before you read it. Please know that I went into this with a good heart, and I hope that comes through.”

It is testament to the charm and grace with which she has told her story that you understand that first and foremost among the qualities she possessed that enabled her marriage to endure was that good heart. And such is the fondness for her husband that shines through her narrative that we come to believe he fundamentally had one, too, despite his many flaws unflinchingly if lovingly revealed in its pages.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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