Some of Flaherty’s set pieces—Mailer’s sparring match with cops at John Jay College, for example, or Breslin’s hilarious humiliation at the hands of young feminists at Sarah Lawrence—are brilliant feats of narrative. Yet the author is also smart enough to get out of the way and let Mailer and Breslin, his effective coauthors, take over the story when necessary. Here the dynamic duo storms the citadel at Queens College:

About a thousand students sat in a sun-baked mall waiting for the candidates. Others sat or dangled from walls or windows, giving the campus the look of a seized border town. And then there was the heat and the flesh—young men, shirtless, with bodies that had not yet made the acquaintance of fat, and young girls in shorts whose brown thighs were covered with a veil of blond algae…. [T]he kids were joyously shouting, “What about Nixon? What about the ABM? What about Daley?” Breslin stood waiting for them to quiet down. Finally Mailer could no longer resist the compelling of stink of sweat and sensuality. He put his arm across Breslin’s body and pushed him aside, seizing the podium. And to answer all their questions… he screamed “Fuck!”, plunging into them as though they were a pair of open legs.

If Managing Mailer is only half-great, it’s because Flaherty, who would write a very good novel called Tin Wife before succumbing to cancer in 1983, had to spend about half his time dealing with nuts and bolts instead of his leading men. Some readers might find that a good thing. Flaherty did have a serious case of hero-worship. To him, Mailer was a visionary: “He proceeded to take [the audience] on a tour of America’s spiritual wasteland, stopping along the way for commentary on our alienation, racism, technological madness, and impotence… convincing a collective body that the sadness in his soul was symbolic of the sadness in the land, that his personal tragedies weren’t encased in his psyche but wrapped in a shroud of red, white and blue.”

But as much as the author idolized the candidates, he was objective enough to call a spade—well, something spade-like. “Flaherty treats a dozen delicate egos like golf balls, and then proceeds to see how far he can whap them,” blurbed Mailer on the cover of the 1971 paperback edition, and there’s some truth to this assessment. We see Breslin’s moodiness and Mailer’s nastiness and unreliability when drinking. One comes away from the book very sorry to have missed their candidacy, but not very sorry that they lost.

One of the real pleasures of Managing Mailer is realizing what isn’t there. This was a campaign composed of gifted amateurs who were full of ideas, many of them half-baked, about how to win. David Garth and Pat Caddell and Roger Ailes were just inaugurating the era of pollsters, consultants, and media masters; this was one of the last homemade efforts. It’s quaint and somewhat amusing to read that having gathering 15,000 precious signatures needed to qualify Mailer for the ballot, Flaherty locked the vital papers in Art D’Lugoff’s safe at The Village Gate. Also absent is the omnipresent cadre of bankers and brokers who dominate our town today. Mailer spoke in peoples’ apartments, collecting five-dollar checks from skeptic liberals who today live in Larchmont and Great Neck and probably still dine out on their story of meeting Mailer.

Present, instead, is a literary New York that is gone. This is a candidacy of writers (indeed, Steinem rebuffed the momentary notion that she run for comptroller because she didn’t want the thing to look like “a campy literary exercise.”) The candidates charted their ups and down by what Murray Kempton or James Wechsler wrote in the Post and what Sidney Zion or Russell Baker said in the Times. They even took note of a rather carnal evaluation of the candidates that appeared in Screw. At one rally, Mailer even argued that the reason “everybody is going crazy in this city [is] because they have no objective correlative.” Barack Obama may be a literary politician, but you can bet he never made a point like that.

Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Spy, Time and Playboy. He is the author of the novel The Coup.