I scarcely knew him as a man, but I knew the work made by the man. Reading him when I was twelve—memorizing the obscene lyrics in The Naked and the Dead; meeting him when I was seventeen and delivered a copy of our college literary magazine to his town house in the Village (“Who are you?” he said. “Come in. Have a drink.” And walking me in to the kitchen where from an amazing possession—his own free-standing Coke machine—he produced a bottle and handed it to me…); walking around the Rutgers campus with a copy of Advertisements for Myself open before me like a menu of the future; and reading everything he wrote thereafter as soon as it appeared.

He was a star to steer by. The brilliance and power of his debut. His enormous industry. The unexpected turns and quirks of his thought. The strength of his failures. The fascination of his notoriety. The dares he made to himself and the fine work those dares produced. He made a triumph of narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, as no other writer of our time. A few years ago my friend Nicholas Delbanco pointed out the similarities between Mailer and H.G. Wells, one of the greats of modern letters who succeeded brilliantly in a number of modes.

Is this how we’ll think of him? Mailer himself put forward  the “thirty-years out” rule, meaning that we have to wait several decades before we’ll know if a writer’s work will truly last beyond his death.