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When I was a teenager, my father haunted second-hand bookstores, buying whole cardboard cartons full of used paperbacks. Rummaging through the pile one day, I discovered a book, published a few years earlier, titled Advertisements for Myself, by somebody called Norman Mailer.

There I was, mired in the early-sixties tedium of Toronto's Lawrence Park Collegiate, surrounded by white-shoe WASPS, mostly headed to Queen's University commerce and the family business. By the time I finished with this collection, I was changed forever.

I was not only on fire to become a writer, I wanted to be a hipster just like Norman Mailer. In an essay called The White Negro, Mailer wrote, "One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel), one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed."

Not much of a choice there for me. Mailer's was a message calculated to appeal to adolescents with a desire to rebel. The Churchillian cadences, elegant in their very formality, had a prose rhythm as compelling as anything Elvis ever put out.

Mailer was pounding a generational drum and, like millions of others, I was all too eager to follow him into "the Wild West of American night life." Failing that, the Wild West of Yorkville would do fine. (There was a skinny kid in my class at Lawrence Park named Neil Young. But that's another story.)

In the essays of Advertisements for Myself, Mailer, using all his novelistic cunning, involved you intensely in his own persona not only as a writer, but a writer with Napoleonic ambition. "The sour truth," he wrote, "is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time."

Imprisoned with a perception. The guy had an unmatched gift for combative metaphor. Not only that, he took you backstage in his writing career, described what it felt like to be catapulted at the age of 25 to worldwide fame with The Naked and the Dead, "a mode in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality, and status."

Mailer was as hip as Kerouac but much more profoundly intellectual. Marx and Freud stood behind his writing, and Stendhal and Malraux. He didn't have much respect for the small ambitions of the competition. J. D. Salinger was "the greatest mind never to leave prep school." Ernest Hemingway was "afraid to think." Saul Bellow was "timid."

Mailer depicted himself, the embattled author, feuding with lunkhead editors, critics and publishers, and battling his way onto the bestseller lists with The Deer Park.

He showed you, page by page, his revisions to the novel, made under the influence of marijuana and bebop, how he had created that crazy rhythm in his prose style. It all looked pretty damned attractive to me, a good way to spend your life.

Mailer became one of those charismatic figures of the times, like Kennedy, Trudeau, the Beatles. The exact same lunkheads who detested Pierre Elliott Trudeau were liable to deplore everything about Norman Mailer and his books. It's been said a thousand times, but it's worth saying again: Norman Mailer created modern political journalism with his Esquire article about John F. Kennedy, Superman Comes to the Supermarket. In Canada alone, journalists like Peter C. Newman and Dalton Camp showed his influence every time they sat down to write.

Then, just as much as his pal Truman Capote did with In Cold Blood, he made an indelible mark on the modern true-crime epic in The Executioner's Song. Check out Stephen William's book about the Bernardo-Homolka case, Invisible Darkness, if you doubt me.

At every step of the way, the protean Mailer created stylistic innovations. In Armies of the Night, he wrote about himself in the third person, creating a wry comic distance on his own persona. In The Executioner's Song, he reversed field. He appeared nowhere in the text, he excised all that Churchillian rhetoric; the sentences were spare, short; all flashy metaphor was banished. The effect was powerful. Last year, at 83, in his much-underrated novel about Adolf Hitler, The Castle in the Forest, Mailer created a narrator out of a spirit, a demon. What he had done, in fact, and brilliantly, was reinvent the omniscient Balzacian narrator of the 19th century.

Mailer's influence was not restricted to those of us who aspired to be writers. Those countercultural activists of the sixties, such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were clearly his disciples in their shit-disturbing antics. Mailer once tried to take over heavyweight champ Sonny Liston's press conference in order to promote a book in front of a national audience. Hoffman lurched onstage at Woodstock to promote his agenda. Like Mailer, Hoffman and Rubin weren't afraid to be seen as ridiculous in order to make an impact.

It has to be said that there were few women among Mailer's admirers. For feminists like Germaine Greer, he mostly served as a sparring partner or a target. All the same, you had the feeling he represented an attractive opponent for intelligent women such as Greer. They wanted to hug Mailer, pudgy though he might be, just as much as they wanted to wrestle him. They picked up on his disruptive methods of making a public point. Nobody ever wanted to get in the ring with a zhlub like Norman Podhoretz.

"The literary world," the 32-year-old Mailer wrote in Advertisements for Myself, "likes to murder their writers, then decorate their grave." For six decades, censorious critics tried to do Mailer in, panning his books, ridiculing his marriages, his feuds, his run-ins with the law. They were the ones who failed; Norman Mailer was writing and battling, right to the very end.

True enough, like Kennedy and Trudeau, his legacy is bound to be eternally controversial. However, his example and teaching endure. For Mailer, as for Ernest Hemingway, the prime virtue was courage. Without courage, they were always saying, there is little else good in life. And that's lesson enough for anybody, man, woman or child.

Norman Snider's collection of essays and articles, The Roaring Eighties and Other Good Times, has just been published.