Norman Mailer: The Executioner’s Song

I picked up The Executioner’s Song (1979; Pulitzer) mainly because my wife is from the area in which its grizzly events took place: the area between Ogden and Spanish Fork, Utah.  In fact, I read the book while in that area and was stunned when I came upon an address in the book (yes, the book is incredibly detailed), looked up from the sofa in the waiting room where I was reading, and found that I was at that exact address getting my car serviced!  Creepy!

the-executioners-song

It’s always an interesting experience approaching Norman Mailer.  Here is someone who considered himself the greatest American writer alive (when the New York Times asked prominent authors to name the best book by an American author published in the last twenty-five years, one reportedly asked, “Can I put my own down?”  I don’t know if it was Mailer, but would it surprise anyone?).  And he absolutely resented much of the literary establishment who failed to take him as seriously as, say, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and John Cheever.  Though I harbor feelings of contempt for the man and think much of his work is self-preening, I can understand why he would boast; winning a few Pulitzers and a National Book Award can definitely go to your head.

This book is, to me, Mailer at his best and worst. 

Here Mailer tackles a giant project: the first execution in the United States after the Supreme Court’s moratorium on executions was lifted.  To do this he really (I mean really) digs deep into the life and times and Gary Gilmore, the one executed in the end.  Mailer talks about big ideas, like execution and the media phenomenon surrounding the events, and yet maintains a personal connection to his characters by developing and examining a very disturbing relationship between Gilmore and his lover, Nicole Baker. 

It’s a fascinating story, truly.  However, at 1017 pages one gets the sense that Mailer feels like he’s gracing the subject and the reader any time he uses his pen to give us another detail.  To me, that’s Mailer at his worst.  I didn’t get the sense that he wrote this much because he was interested (though I’m sure he was) but because he wanted to show off just how much information and analysis he gathered.

Divided into two parts, the books is strangely balanced.  Book one begins at an early memory of Gilmore:

Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree.  She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off.  Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down.  They were scared.  The apple trees were their grandmother’s best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard.  She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice.  That was Brenda’s earliest recollection of Gary.

He we get a sense of the detail we’re going to encounter.  We also see that the book is set up as a piece of reportage.  Brenda is one of our main witnesses to Gilmore’s life.  The book continues by breezing rather quickly through Gilmore’s early life, spent mostly in juvenile detention centers.  Just how bad Gilmore was is kept ambiguous, giving him a mysterious aura; Mailer alludes that he may have killed someone while in prison, but maybe not.  The book really begins to plumb the depths of Gilmore’s life when he is released from prison and goes to Utah to live.  We track his jobs, his relations with family and friends, and particularly his relationship with Nicole Baker, whose own dysfunctional past is examined.  Their relationship, just how these two very messed up individuals can violently come together, is one of the most fascinating aspects of this multifaceted novel.

This book tracks Gilmore up to and after his short-lived killing spree, when he killed two young fathers.  We then go with him to prison, to his trial (annoying short on the analysis here, though), to his appeals, to his time on death row.

In the middle, though, the book shifts.  Mailer, who seriously puts into question whether he wrote this book in good faith, digs into the media phenomenon surrounding the event.  There’s big money in these types of stories.  Which papers get to cover which events?  What producer gets rights to Gilmore’s autobiography?  What famous author (hmm….) gets access to the truckload of documents, interviews, and witness reports in order to write the authoritative version?  And all for what end?  —Money.  Here is a man, who has killed too young college students, going to his death, the first state-sponsored execution in years, and the media is all in a hype about who might get to play him in a made-for-TV-movie!  By the way, that would be Tommy Lee Jones, who won an Emmy for the role.

There are other fascinating aspects too.  Another favorite was when Gilmore told his lawyers he didn’t want to appeal again; can an ethical lawyer not appeal a death sentence?  For a time they did refuse to listen to their client.

It’s a massive look at a national phenomenon and at one of its strange stories.  And Mailer does it all by presenting the characters in a quasi-fictional narrative (it did win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, perhaps strangely).  We hear them yelling at each other, brokering deals, guaranteeing Gilmore that the proceeds will go to Nicole.

And maybe that’s my frustration: here is an author I really don’t respect doing something phenomenal, forcing me to concede that he is a master.  That he can turn all of this into a coherent narrative that someone like me who avoids overly long books can get lost in . . . it is praiseworthy, even if the author is not.

18 thoughts on “Norman Mailer: The Executioner’s Song

  1. Jack Stickney says:

    I grew up in Spanish Fork during the time of Gilmore’s killings. It was in Spanish Fork at a little corner market named ‘Swan’s Market’ (at the corner of Main Street and 300 South – a 7-11 was built there in it’s place in the early 80′s); that Gilmore stole the gun used in the murders. The gun was later returned to the owners. A high school friend of mine (and one-time pawn shop owner) Dennis (D.R.) Stilson, now owns the infamous gun that was used in the crimes. He wrote a book about it called “The Gilmore Gun And I”. If anyone is interested in the book I have two copies and would be happy to send you one; just pay the shipping. Contact me at jacklstickney@hotmail.com.

  2. I do appreciate this review, Trevor, because it is of a book that I have occasionally hefted and immediately decided I didn’t want to read. 1) I do live in a part of the world (like most) that has done away with the death penalty. 2) I can’t raise an interest in Gilmore. 3) Having lived versions of media frenzy (although not up to this one, I admit) I didn’t need to read about one. 4) I too have Mailer problems, although I too can acknowledge he can write — it is sort of a John Daly can play golf but other issues mean he is not a good golfer. So this timely review (Mailer’s enjoying a bit of a critical revival lately) is most appreciated.

    And I can’t help but ask: How did you think it compared to In Cold Blood, which I did read when it appeared in instalments in the New Yorker way back when?

  3. I couldn’t resist checking who the finalists were in 1980:
    Birdy, by William Wharton
    The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth

    Either you knew that later fact and were deliberately hiding it from us to see if anyone would find it or you dislike Mailer even more now that you did before.

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  4. Trevor says:

    Jack, I hesitate to say that I’m glad you have a personal connection to the events. On the one hand, it’s nice to get that perspective; on the other, these are not events one wants to be close to. Did you know any of the others involved? I’ve never met anyone who personally knew Nicole Baker, though I know several who knew (or say they knew) Gilmore and many of the others in the book. By the way, thanks for the offer on the book. Look for my email!

    Kevin, though I’m glad I read this book I can’t say I recommend it to you. Your reasons for not reading it are sound. I’m not sure how I feel about Mailer having a comeback; I half hoped (out of spite) that his books would be out of print a couple years after his death. I’m sure some of this is because I did know that this book beat Roth’s The Ghost Writer, which I consider superior in so many ways. You know I think The Ghost Writer to be one of the best books written, though, so I’m pretty biased.

    About In Cold Blood: though I respect Capote more, I actually think I liked this book more. While in this book we sense Mailer thinks every theme he touches upon is gold, I was annoyed at how Capote thought every sentence he wrote was gold. Mailer definitely didn’t let a pretentious writing style cloud the work he was trying to produce. However, I do love many pieces by Capote, particularly his short stories. I’ll have to think about this longer. My opinion might change in a few minutes. If so, I’ll rework this.

  5. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Trevor uses the term “area” loosely. I would say that I’m from the same region the events took place. My particular town happens to be near perfect and the regions Gilmore haunted were somewhat less-so.
    Also Trevor, I was wondering, how do you like Mailer? I’ve heard some disparaging things about him at home and thought it would be nice if you could give us some insight into your personal feelings of the man.

  6. Trevor says:

    I think my wife means that her area has been perfect ever since the Laffertys got sent to prison. Oh wait, no, that would be after Ted Bundy came through town.

    And Mailer? Hmmm. I’ll have to think about how I feel about the man.

  7. I should have said that if I had lived in Utah — or even spent some time there — I would have buried all my objections and read this book. My exposure is limited to driving the length of the state several times on Calgary-to-L.A. trips, usually with Salt Lake City as an overnight stop. Whatever the state of Mrs. B’s areas, as a boy from the foothills I do have to say it is breathtakingly beautiful country.

    But I digress. My hypothesis on why this book beat The Ghost Writer for that year’s Pulitzer would be that Mailer had addressed an issue — albeit in fiction — that preoccupied the America of the day (and indeed has never left the agenda since — some of us are hoping that it is actually rising on the agenda now). Some Pulitzer juries do seem to give a nod to topicality (that’s why I like A Mercy this year). The again some juries seem to like the longest book they can find — that would seem to move Shadow Crossing up. Nobody, including me (the only person I know who has actually read it), even has it as a finalist in my contest, despite its National
    Book Award win (I’m presuming 2666 isn’t eligible for citizenship reasons.)

    And finally the fact that I have felt no urge to reread In Cold Blood in the four decades since I last read it is probably an indication that I’d like to retain a fond teen-age memory of the work rather than have it exploded. Like you, I tend to prefer Capote’s much shorter works, with Breakfast at Tiffany’s being an exception, although even there I have to wonder how much Hepburn and the wonderful movie influence my opinion. Perhaps you could assuage Mrs. Berrett’s chagrin by stopping by, picking up a little turquoise box, renting the DVD and scheduling a night at home with the boys. You could reread the book the next day.

  8. Trevor says:

    Someday, Kevin, someday I’ll be able to get my wife a little turquoise box. By that time I’m sure to have built up a lot of chagrin to assuage!

    By the way, I loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the book and the film, but I definitely felt the book to be far superior to the film. Maybe that’s because I read it before seeing the movie. To me the film added some nice things to the mix, especially the Mancini song, but it glossed quickly over some of the book’s more substantial elements. I’ve found that to see these elements in the film, it is almost necessary to read the book. But that’s a good thing because the book is superb.

  9. I saw the film first which led me to the book — and the book certainly has more substance to it (as books always do). Liking both is definitely the best option.

  10. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I think the box is more light blue than turquoise and I’d rather have a bracelet than a box. I don’t think there is much need to schedule a night in with the boys, it’s pretty much every night.
    In defense of my town, none of that happened while I was alive and Grandma D. says Lafferty (I don’t recall which one) was weird, but overall nice enough. Granted she wasn’t on his hitlist.
    I like the Movie (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and that has actually turned me off from the book. I like that it’s elusive and somewhat insubstantial. I watch a movie with great fashion, jewelry, and hair. I don’t know that the book can top that.
    I don’t think I’m normally so shallow, but I have a thing for Hepburn films.

  11. Excellent point, Mrs. Berrett. It is counter-intuitive but the smaller the box (whatever version of blue you want to call it), the better (and more expensive) the contents. I’ve learned by experience.

    Mrs. KFC regards the movie and book as two totally different things, I think, and doesn’t like to compare them since she likes both. Still on the Hepburn front, one of the best Christmas presents ever was when I gave her the Audrey Hepburn DVD 5-pack ($33 Cdn — don’t think Tiffany’s has anything in stock at that price). Not only was I a hero for getting it, I frequently get kicked upstairs to suffer through a sporting event (such as tonight’s NCAA final) while she watches one of the movies yet again.

  12. Trevor says:

    And unfortunately, tonight’s NCAA final is nothing great. Suffering is the right word. I expect more!

  13. It wasn’t a thrilling experience by any means. I did win enough on the Tar Heels to buy two books however so that turns a couple of hours of suffering into eight to 10 hour of genuin entertainment. Ever the optimist, I am.

  14. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Go Tar heels!
    I changed my mind, I would actually like getting the box, empty. I love containers and I love beautiful colors and ribbons.
    So here’s a question: You find both Mailer and Capote to be a little arrogant in their writing, can you think of someone who did this genre (fictionalized non-fiction crime) without being so?
    Maybe there’s a level of arrogance one needs to even attempt to write this. I couldn’t think of anyone and I know you all have more reading knowledge than me.

  15. Trevor says:

    Does this open up the debate about whether Capote truly broke open a new field with In Cold Blood? He certainly felt this way. And perhaps one does need a certain arrogance to set out to write a book to do just that.

    I would be interested in other’s thoughts too. I have not read much in this field. I like to read nonfiction, but I’m not well read in true crime that finds itself in the fiction section.

    I know John Self did a review of The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper, and he found it very worthwhile. I didn’t sense that Hooper had an inflated ego when I read his review. I also don’t know if one could say that book is similar in style (fiction) as Mailer’s and Capote’s.

    My own sense is that Mailer and Capote were inflated in more than their writing, so surely there are many out there who deserve high praise for their accomplishments in this genre but don’t feel like a god afterwards. I am sure this is the source of my perspective on them, because despite the fact that I enjoyed both of these books I look for reasons to dislike (or at least disrespect) the authors. Probably unfairly.

  16. Mrs. Berrett raises a question that has kept me thinking most of the morning.

    1. There is a ton of fiction based on historical real crimes (e.g. most of Atwood’s Alias Grace, which you reviewed, is based on a real murder). I wouldln’t describe that writing as arrogant.
    2. The Tall Man takes a real incident, then expands and fictionalizes it. Just on recent excellent example of that (without arrogance) would be The Cellist of Sarajevo.
    3. Mrs. KFC thinks there is a novel about the Great British Train Robbery that would qualify — my memory and googling show a lot of (questionable) non-fiction books, many from the participants, that position themselves just on the other side of the fiction-non-fiction line.

    4. I recall a book from about 10 years ago about a murder in Charleston (I think) that had “garden” in the title somewhere (which gives me bad searching terms). Mrs. KFC and I both remember reading and enjoying it, even if we can’t remember the title.
    4. Moving in a somewhat different direction, if Mrs. Berrett or you have not yet read Toibin’s The Master, a fictional account of Henry James in Rye.

    So, as a journalist, my problem with the arrogance of both Mailer and Capote is they purport to investigate a real event in real time. Unlike a journalist, however, who needs to uncover real facts and keep the account honest, when these two get to a part where they are a) too lazy or b) think they have a better idea, they make it up. They want all the benefit of the reality, but none of the consequences of having to keep it real — for a writer, that is about as arrogant as you can get. (You can imagine what I think of Donald Trump and The Celebrity Apprentice and my opinion is based totally on ads that I can’t avoid because they show up in sporting events.)

    Given all that, you can also probably imagine the problems I am having with myself and my opinions on the slew of post 9/11 novels. I refused to even attempt Updike’s The Terrorist and put down Delillo’s Falling Man in disgust after 60 pages. Yet I think Netherland is quite a good book and The Reluctant Fundamentalist and excellent one. I can’t even explain to myself where the line is.

  17. NCAA finals update: I won $40 for my two hours of suffering last night. Avoiding the temptation to rebet it all on the Masters, I have just spent $48 ordering four of the five IMPAC books that I don’t have (I’ll have to dip into my own pocket for Ravel, which is available only in hardcover). Not a bad return for two hours of suffering. This is a frivolous comment, so feel free to delete it.

  18. Trevor says:

    I’ll never delete a frivolous comment, Kevin. Part of the fun of the blog!

    Congrats on the win, by the way. Hopefully the books don’t turn into any additional suffering!

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