The Executioner’s Song
by Norman Mailer (1979)
I picked up The Executioner’s Song 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!
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.