By People Staff
December 13, 1982 12:00 PM

by Hilary Mills

He was a bright, frail Jewish kid from Brooklyn, only 16 years old, and he wanted to study science at MIT. They wanted him to delay a year, so he went to Harvard and majored in engineering. But in his freshman year there he got a rare A + on a novella. As a sophomore, he won a prestigious magazine short story contest. Then in his junior year his English teacher required that students write 3,000 words a week. Mailer wrote 3,000 every day. And—while he got his engineering degree cum laude—he decided to become not just a writer but a great one, modeling himself after the public image of Hemingway. Mailer the frail, skinny boy made himself into a drinking brawler and womanizer just as carefully as he taught himself to write. His biographer, a New York journalist whose interest was provoked by an interview she did with Mailer for a 1981 article, has done a remarkable job of research. The chapter on Mailer’s years at Harvard is wonderful because Bea Silverman, who was to become his first wife, and his male friends were so candid. A roommate, Sy Breslow, relates, for instance, that Mailer wanted to go to war because he was determined to write a great novel. The Naked and the Dead was the result. Mailer’s reaction to his early literary fame and the way he has used his emotional life in his 25 books make a rich story. There are also some clues about his 10-years-in-the-making meganovel Ancient Evenings, which will be published next year. Even readers who don’t like Mailer—especially those who don’t like Mailer—will find this book absorbing. (Empire, $14.95)