Matt's Reviews > The Executioner's Song

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
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Nov 14, 14

Read from June 30 to July 11, 2010

This book is something. Yup, it surely is.

The Executioner's Song is one of those oxymoronically-named "non-fiction novels." In a non-fiction novel - the classic of the genre being Truman Capote's In Cold Blood - a journalist takes his research as far as humanly possible, right up to the boundary of unknown human thought, and then fills those gaps with reasoned speculation. It's kind of shady. Well, it's really shady, especially since it's never clear what is hard-fact and what is guesswork. Shadiness aside, this type of book is also hugely entertaining.

The Executioner's Song tells the story of Gary Mark Gilmore (funny how killers and child stars always go by their full names), a lowlife thug who'd spent over half his life in prison before ruthlessly murdering two men while on parole. Instead of fighting his conviction on appeal, Gilmore forced the State of Utah's hand, essentially daring them to execute him. Coming on the heels of the US Supreme Court's moratorium on the death penalty, Gilmore was the first person executed in the country for 10 years.

That's the story in a nutshell, but there's nothing about The Executioner's Song that is nutshell worthy.

To begin with, it's written by Norman Mailer. In fact, that might be the most important thing about The Executioner's Song: the Norman Mailer-ness of it all. If you don't believe me, just look at the front cover: a small picture of a gas station (where one of the murders occurred); the title of the book, in small print; and then the author's name, NORMAN MAILER, in huge font, dominating the negative space.

I wasn't yet born while Mailer was in his prime, and he was dead before I read his first book, but I've read enough of his work, and read enough about him, to understand that Mailer made himself the foremost character of everything he wrote.

He does this in The Executioner's Song by the simple fact that he wrote a 1,000 page book about Gary Gilmore. 1,000 pages about a pseudo-folk hero who never did a redeemable thing in his life. He may have had a genius level IQ, and a talent for drawing, but he was unexceptional in every other way. Even his crimes were garden-variety: two cold blooded murders of young white men that occurred while in the course of botched robberies. Tragic, yes, but not shocking or, unfortunately in this country, out of the ordinary. Moreoever, despite what the publisher's copy would have you believe, Gary Gilmore didn't "fight for his right to die." Instead, he sat on his sociopathic ass while the State of Utah battled the ACLU over the date of his execution and his own lawyers battled over who would get paid for the rights to his stories.

In short, there's not a lot of story. So what does Mailer do: he writes a 1,000 page monster, a white trash epic, a hillbilly War and Peace. It's unlike anything I've ever read.

You realize you're reading something unique, as soon as you get to the first page. The book, you see, is written in bite-sized paragraphs that are separated by double-spaces. At first, this is kind of obnoxious, and a little pretentious. Then, you realize it's sort of awesome. Each of these lonely word-chunks represents its own contained thought; and as you move from one thought to the next, you get into a kind of rhythm that is both engaging and oddly-poetic. I have no idea how Mailer sustained this style for so long, but he does.

Mailer's greatest achievement is his voice. The book is seemingly written in the third-person, but it actually shifts subtly to the point-of-view of the subject of each paragraph. It's almost as if these characters are telling their own story, with their own constricted lexicon. Mailer restrains himself from using fancy words or elegant descriptions or complex sentences. Everything is simple, hard, flat, and colloquial, the way that Gary or his girlfriend Nicole might tell a story. (Of course, Mailer being Mailer, he can't resist throwing in a few malaprops that certainly didn't come from any interviewee. I'm thinking, specifically, that the phrase "competent glasses" is a Mailer-ism, and possible inspired the insufferable Murray from DeLillo's White Noise).

While on the topic of restraint, it should be mentioned that Mailer has attempted to do the hardest of things: create a work without judgment. This is both an asset and, eventually, a liability.

Mailer simply tells the story: this happened, then this, then this. It's almost like he's acting as a conduit, rather than an author. He adds no commentary to the actions of his central characters. For a reader accustomed to being told how to feel, this might feel odd and a little disorienting. For instance, there are dozens of scenes of Gary, a pathetic conman, fruitlessly trying to bend people to his will. Instead of noting how Gary was acting like a low-rent Jedi with his silly mind tricks, Mailer remains silent.

This reticence is especially true with Nicole, who is actually the central character of the book. Nicole Barrett was first married at the age of 14, and in subsequent years, and through subsequent marriages (and two children) she slept with dozens and dozens of men, women, and children (sadly, I am not exaggerating). She is constantly saying how much she loves Gary, even while sleeping with her ex-husband, and a stranger she meets at a bar, and a random hitchhiker. The natural inclination of an author is to note the incongruity in her thoughts (faithful love) and actions (sex with any sentient beings in her path). Mailer resists this urge and the resulting portrait, with all its inherent (and human) contradictions is all the richer. (You are forced to balance Nicole's victmhood - she was sexually abused as a child - with her own consistently poor choices and subpar parenting).

Of course, it's impossible to write entirely without judgment. Mailer's judgments come from his elisions. His focus is on Gilmore and Nicole, their "love" affair, Gilmore's incarceration, and finally, Gilmore's death. What is missing is the crime and its victims. Mailer devotes perhaps 12 pages to the family of Max Jensen, the first victim, and half of that to Ben Bushnell, the second. The crimes themselves are told in a couple sentences: the shootings are bloodless, vaguely-detailed affairs, which stand in contrast to the graphic retellings of just about every other incident in the story.

This is simply unacceptable for a book that spends hundreds of pages following peripheral characters. In the most egregious example, Mailer spends half a chapter following the day-in-the-life of one of Nicole's former lovers. Mailer seems to relish the opportunity to describe this man having sexual intercourse with a fifteen year-old girl, right down to their exact positions (hint: 70 - 1 = literary statutory rape). After this sordid event, this man disappears from the book. Yet for all that, Mailer can't be bothered to flesh out the lives of the victims, or their wives, or even describe the violent acts that put Gilmore in jail.

Unnecessary detail is the lifeblood of The Executioner's Song. In the first half of the book, which starts with Gilmore's release from prison, follows him through his destructive courtship of Nicole, and ends with him in the clink, these digressions are mostly forgivable.

In the second half, however, frustration sets in. This is mostly due to the fact that Mailer decides to follow every twist and turn of producer Lawrence Schiller, as he tries to secure the book and movie rights to Gilmore's life story. One starts to wonder why Mailer would decide to make a leech such a central character. Then you read the copyrights page, and the acknowledgments, and you realize that Mailer got most of his research material from Schiller. At this point, you see these sections of The Executioner's Song in a whole new light (the phrase "mutual masturbation" springs to mind).

One of the mysteries of The Executioner's Song is the extent of Mailer's involvement. We all know that Capote famously went to Kansas, spent time with the people of Holcombe, and interviewed killer Perry Smith. There is no indication that Mailer did anything similar. Most of the research appears to have been done by Schiller, and by Gilmore's two attorneys, who spent hours interviewing Gilmore for Schiller, instead of fulfilling their ethical obligations as lawyers.

This is only really a problem with regards to Gilmore. While Nicole's life story is told front to back, in great detail, Gilmore - the putative focus - remains elusive. Mailer's portrat of Gilmore is pointillist; it doesn't come from him, but from the words and observations of all these different people who came into his orbit. Unfortunately, you lose a lot of information is that space between the points. Mailer compounds this problem by refusing to supply any basic biographical information. It's not until deep into the book that you learn why Gilmore was in jail in the first place (armed robbery, apparently).

I still enjoyed this book, despite these problems. I couldn't help but admire the audaciousness, the narrative voice, and the amount of effort that must have been required to put this story together. Throughout, it had me questioning my own beliefs, my own perceptions: who were the victims? who were the perpetrators? was justice served or did the justice system fail? Mailer's refusal to give you any overt guidance draws those internal questions into sharp relief.

Gilmore was shot through the heart four times on January 17, 1977. At the risk of injecting politics into Goodreads, I cannot resist a parting thought:

How can anyone think it was a good idea to execute Gary Gilmore?

The scenes at the end of The Executioner's Song show Utah's Attorney General and the Warden of the Utah State Prison at Point of the Mountain racing against the clock to kill Gilmore before the US Supreme Court can intervene. To what end were these men acting? Would it have killed them (pardon the pun) to wait for the Supreme Court to rule on the Stay of Execution? Does it really ennoble justice to be racing down courthouse hallways, trailing sheaths of paper in your wake, to call the prison and set the machinery of death in motion? Were these men or wolves? I can accept - because it is the law - that the Government can take a life; I cannot accept that it will do so with unconstrained eagerness.

More than that, did anyone in 1977 stop to think: why are we doing what Gary Mark Gilmore wants us to do?

I once visited a client in prison. He was being released and I wanted to check in with him, to make sure he "registered" with certain governmental agencies. This was the first time I'd ever been in a prison. And by prison, I mean the penitentiary, not the county lock-up where defendants are held pending trial or to serve sentences of less than a year (I have to go to lock-up all the time, unfortunately).

It sat on the edge of town, on a flat stretch of prairie with bluffs in the distance. It had chain link fences and razor wire and towers and guards. It wasn't Marion or Supermax, but it sure wasn't Six Flags either. To get in, I showed my ID, registered, and locked all my belongings in a locker. Then I went through one set of locked doors, then another, then another, and another. After that, I was escorted outside, to another building, another set of doors. When the visit was over, after 20 minutes, I wanted to leave, but I couldn't, since there was still an hour left in the visitation block. So I had to wait with all these cons and their families, who could sit close but not touch, and who were watched by guards and cameras and who were chided when they got too near. Imagine that kind of hell: to see but not touch the people you love.

Anyone who says prison isn't punishment has never been to prison. It sucks. When I left, I sat in the parking lot for ten minutes, gulping free air.

Everything about prison is regimented and lock-step. You wake when they tell you, you sleep when they tell you, you eat when they tell you and stop eating when they tell you, you go outside when they tell you and come back in when they tell you. You're always watched, by guards and by cameras. Some lights never go off. There is always noise (Gilmore hated the noise): doors opening and banging shut; guards yelling commands; other convicts talking and threatening and acting out. There are wags who will tell you it's nothing but laying around all day, watching television or reading. Right. Except try doing that surrounded by several hundred felons, all of whom will con you, some of whom will rape you, or beat you, or kill you; try watching the boob tube while sitting on molded chairs with an armed robber to your left and an attempted murderer to your right; try getting through a single page of a book with all that clanging and hollering.

Gary Gilmore didn't want to die because he felt remorse. He was unable to feel remorse because he was a sociopath (it would've been nice had Mailer interjected himself enough to analyze Gary's condition, but even without any outright discussion, Gary's psychopathy is self-evident). He wanted to die because it was preferable to prison.

Fundamentally, Gary Gilmore was a coward. He was scared of prison. He'd spent a lot of time behind bars, and his great fear was waiting out the remainder of his life in a place without hope. More than that, he'd worked himself into such a state over Nicole - whose breakup with him precipitated his killing spree - that he didn't want to live with the thought of her sleeping with other men.

Essentially, Gilmore was attempting state-assisted suicide. And the State agreed. Wholeheartedly. How is it punishment when you give the prisoner exactly what he wants?

If Gary Gilmore had not been executed, he would be 70 years old right now. He would have had to endure 33 years of short, plain meals; 33 years of brief outdoor trips to the yard; 33 years of clanging doors, shouting guards, lockdowns and prisoner counts; 33 years to think about the life he'd never lead; 33 years to miss all the technological advances; 33 years to think about the women with whom he'd never sleep; 33 years to miss Nicole. If justice is possible, I think it looks something like that.

Instead, the bloodlust of Utah's body politic and the cowardice of Gary Mark Gilmore conspired to stage a violent farce. Utah gave up a bit of its soul, and Gary Gilmore managed to escape.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Really fantastic review.

Did you ever read Mikal Gilmore's 'Shot in the Heart'? It's sort of the anti-Executioner's Song in a way - but just as gripping.


message 2: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow Good Review(though I personally like this better than 'In Cold Blood'). I second Moira's endorsement of 'Shot in The Heart'. A great book that covers some of the same territory.


message 3: by KFed (new) - added it

KFed This is an outstanding review.


Matt D. wrote: "Good Review(though I personally like this better than 'In Cold Blood'). I second Moira's endorsement of 'Shot in The Heart'. A great book that covers some of the same territory."

Thanks Moira and D.

I saw Mikal Gilmore on that A&E Biography on Gilmore, and he certainly seems like a guy of above-average insight. I'll definitely check out Shot in the Heart after I give myself some time to decompress from the subject matter.


message 5: by Doreen (new)

Doreen Matt, this is one of the best reviews I've ever read. Nicely done, and thanks for imparting your thoughts to the GR community.


message 6: by Meaghan (new)

Meaghan The review was, as the previous commenters have noted, quite lovely. I wish the book reviews I write would be one-quarter as good as this.

But it would be even lovelier if you corrected the sentence "For a reader accustomed to being told how to feel, this might feel odd and a little disorientating." It should be "disorienting."


Matt Meaghan wrote: "The review was, as the previous commenters have noted, quite lovely. I wish the book reviews I write would be one-quarter as good as this.

But it would be even lovelier if you corrected the senten..."


Error noted and fixed. Thanks! However, I had to fire my summer intern in charge of proofing my Goodreads reviews.


message 8: by John (new)

John David It actually wasn't an error at all, Matt. "Disorient" and "disorientate" are both perfectly legitimate.


Emma Really fabulous review (sorry to be repetitive), I am reading this book at the moment and was thinking along similar lines about the way Mailer writes but absolutely could not have expressed it this eloquently. Thanks for sharing. PS John David is right, both are fine to use!


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