"Which wife are you?" The audacity of this question, often posed to Norris Church Mailer, sixth wife of Norman Mailer, reflects the particular challenges of marrying a larger-than-life literary icon with a checkered reputation. Consider for a moment the skill set required to be Mailer's wife: an ability to play second fiddle to an outsize ego (Mailer's pugnacious self-infatuation was legendary), a willingness to overlook the past (Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife at a party) without also neglecting its spoils (Mailer already had seven children), the capacity to support a writer's need for solitude (Mailer wrote prolifically and traveled often) without becoming jealous or suspicious (Mailer cheated on Norris for much of their married life).
Despite having taken on a role that required superhuman levels of patience and acceptance, Norris offers a straightforward account of her life with her Pulitzer Prize–winning husband that's remarkably devoid of bitterness, blame, or self-aggrandizement. Instead of digging up ancient grudges or indulging in petty one-upmanship with any of Mailer's other wives or mistresses (a few of whom have written books of their own), she presents the details of her relationship with a humble but headstrong tone that somehow disassembles our preconceptions about the sort of statuesque redheaded southern girl who clamors to meet famous married authors. Norris herself never hesitates to cast aspersions on her own reputation, as when she describes her first encounter with Mailer in 1975: "I patted the seat beside me, and he came and sat down while the other women gave me the evil eye, looking at me as though I was the hussy I was."
By the time she met Mailer, Norris, an eccentric high school art teacher raised by devout Christians in a small town in Arkansas, had already cheated on and dumped her first husband and engaged in love affairs with a handful of men, including a young Bill Clinton, whom she describes as "hard to resist." ("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.'")
An odd mix of earnest and sly, naive and sophisticated, Norris enters into an affair with her future husband with reckless abandon: Forget that the man has several children, a wife, and a mistress at the time; our girl flies around the country for trysts, then leaves her four-year-old son with her parents in Arkansas to be closer to her new suitor in New York City, where she quietly pursues a modeling career, befriends Mailer's mother, and cleans up his wreck of an apartment.
It's easy, of course, to question the author's eagerness to throw off her old life and make herself indispensable to such a high-profile womanizer. But imagine, at age twenty-six, receiving love letters that refer to you as a "rich red presence in my arms," letters that spin off into extended ruminations on auras, souls, and "floating up to your fuck storm." Even as she falls under the thrall of such flattering (and occasionally comical) prose, Norris is a pragmatist: She establishes relationships with Mailer's extensive brood ("The girls accepted me as something between a girlfriend and an older sister," she writes) and applies herself to keeping her somewhat erratic husband's ducks in a row.
While Norris touches on many of the most infamous events of Mailer's life, from his ill-considered friendship with murderer Jack Henry Abbott to his longtime rivalry with Gore Vidal, the best passages in A Ticket to the Circus concern the quirks of everyday existence with Mailer: His nickname for his daughter Betsy was Fats Svengado; during a summer vacation in Cape Cod with all of his kids, Mailer would "wake everyone up with a cheery ditty he'd learned in the army, 'Drop your cocks and grab your socks! Out of your fart-sacks, you bastards!'" Through Norris's account, we get a sense of Mailer as alternately playful and cantankerous, as wildly entertaining and lovable as he was impulsive, stubborn, and downright nasty. Although she admits that they fought a lot, Norris is clear on one thing: Mailer made her feel like she was the center of the universe.
The real trouble begins when she discovers that Mailer's universe has many, many centers. When Mailer tells her about the countless girlfriends, mistresses, and one-night stands he's taken on, Norris retaliates with her own affair, then considers leaving him to start a new life. And why not? She's only forty-two years old. Haven't the years of playing a supporting role to this "old, fat, bombastic, lying little dynamo" (as she refers to him) done enough damage to her self-esteem? But Mailer begs her to stay with him, and in the end, Norris is as pragmatic as ever: "I knew that if I left him I would wonder the rest of my life what he was up to, and be sorry I wasn't with him."
Such was the lure of this volatile, exuberant man she chose to stand behind until his death in 2007. No one would dare ask "Which wife are you?" by then, but her reply to those rude strangers decades earlier proved prophetic: "The last one."
Heather Havrilesky, a staff writer for Salon.com, is the author of Disaster Preparedness, a memoir due in the fall from Riverhead Press.