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Two new books feature strong male protagonists — one real and one imagined.

Character Studies

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It's hard to believe that the enfant terrible of American letters is a septuagenarian. It's equally incredible that Norman Mailer's first and some would say best novel, "The Naked and the Dead" was published more than 50 years ago. Who would have thought that a nice, middle-class Jewish lad from Brooklyn would become the pugnacious and sometimes outrageous chronicler of the darker side of the American Dream? While he was at Harvard studying engineering, he wrote some stories for the literary magazine and discovered his talent for writing fiction. From that point on, according to "Mailer" biographer Mary V. Dearborn (Houghton Mifflin Co., $30) he aspired to be the greatest writer of his generation. It's doubtful that he's achieved that goal, but Mailer has been one of the more interesting writers to emerge from the '50s. His writing life has been eclectic: everything from essays on Marilyn Monroe to political reporting to a novel set in ancient Egypt. His latest work is a Tolstoy-sized disquisition on the CIA. Dearborn does an admirable job of sorting through the life of this public writer. There's the early fame with his war novel, the weaker follow-ups, the stabbing of his second wife, the abortive mayoral campaign, the feuds with the feminists, the experiments with the "nonfiction novel," which earned him a pair of literary awards, and a kind of mellowing in his sunset years. The man who believed that J. Edgar Hoover had done more harm to America than Stalin now sees the CIA as respectable. The polemicist who praised Castro supports conservative Mayor Rudy Giuliani's clean-up of New York. Dearborn notes this with some alarm in her epilogue. As the biographer of another literary rebel, Henry Miller, she seems more comfortable with the image of Mailer as bad boy of post-war American literature than with the Sage of Provincetown. After reading this fine account of his colorful and controversial life, I believe it is unlikely that Mailer will go gently into that good night. Like an aging prizefighter, he'll probably go down swinging. — Joseph Lewis After a brief hiatus, Clive Cussler, the originator of incredible multilayered adventures, returns with his unstoppable protagonist, Dirk Pitt, in a cliffhanger that will ultimately test Pitt's endurance. "Atlantis Found" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $26.95) begins with an 1858 unexplained phenomenon in Antarctica: A whaler uncovers an ancient wreck with one of its relics being a perfectly shaped skull carved from obsidian. Two centuries later, in Colorado, a mine excavation almost turns deadly for a team of scientists when they uncover obsidian inscriptions and are almost sealed alive in a carefully planned explosion. Despite this time lapse, these two events are part of a diabolical chain, which could irreparably upset world balance, both socially and ecologically. Inevitably, Pitt becomes enmeshed with the possibility of a technologically advanced, yet extinct, civilization which may have flourished in Antarctica. Pitt, along with his capable companion Al Giordano, must grapple with a ruthless family conglomerate wanting to revive a legacy of monstrous evil. Cussler's writing effortlessly explains uncharted scientific frontiers in terms understandable to readers not schooled in these disciplines. The plot goes from underground skirmishes to nautical conflict with vessels believed destroyed more than a half-century ago, to potential disaster on an icy precipice. The novel contains palpitating episodes and whimsical interludes with the author casting himself as a minor character. "Atlantis Found" will be seized and savored by legions of Pitt followers who will be mesmerized by the hero's steely resolve and survival instinct. — Bruce Simon

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