“Historical, religious, and existential treatises suggest that for some persons at some times, it is rational not to avoid physical death at all costs. Indeed the spark of humanity can maximize its essence by choosing an alternative that preserves the greatest dignity and some tranquility of mind.”
After four months—four long, grueling months— I’ve finally finished Norman Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize novel, The Executioner’s Song. For one thing, this is a heck of a long book—1,056 pages, to be precise. Furthermore, this is an incredibly dense book.
Based on the real story of career criminal and killer, Gary Gilmore, Mailer’s “novel” isn’t so much a work of fiction as it an incredibly careful and detailed retelling of the events that transpired which ultimately led to Gilmore’s demise. The story itself is a lightly editorialized truncation of newspaper clippings, recordings, and interviews with Gilmore’s family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, loved ones, doctors, prison staff, and even Gary Gilmore himself.
First, this book was an absolutely incredible undertaking by Mailer. A novel of its girth, scope, depth, and sheer volume is no small feat in its own right; but to couple that with the extraordinary amount of research to nail down precise details on top of it…? Well—it’s certainly impressive.
This book, and others like it (The Killer Angels comes to mind, speaking of Pulitzers), which combine fact and fiction to form a sort of journalistic literature (or literary journalism) hybrid fascinate me—a nonfiction novel, as it were. It is no easy task to present a bare bones, black and white news story as a deeply engaging work of fiction. And with The Executioner’s Song, Mailer does so.
Besides the enormous amount of research that went into this work, the writing itself is, at times, breathtaking. Mailer proves himself to be a master craftsman of story and storytelling as he delicately balances fact and fiction, carefully toeing the line between real and surreal; and he does so with prose that is so lean, naked, and raw, but also poetic, ethereal, and quietly beautiful in its own way. Indeed, Mailer’s writing is as stark as the Utah landscape, but there’s something very mystical, mysterious, and enchanting about it.
The same goes, really, for the man himself—Gary Gilmore. I mean, here we have a deranged lunatic with a penchant for criminal activity and a sociopath with incredibly severe anger issues. Gary Gilmore is presented a white trash, country bumpkin, career criminal with an absolutely worthless existence. This is a man who has spent 22 of his 36 years locked in prison; when he finally does get the opportunity to rehabilitate himself in the free world, he becomes an alcoholic, abusive, reckless, a petty thief, and, eventually, a murderer (and the two incredibly senseless murders he commits happened for no other reason than he was feeling kinda twitchy and bored). In no way does this man live an enriched life, and in no way does he contribute to those around him or society at large. He is worthless, and it really pains me to say that because I genuinely believe all of mankind is inherently good and has worth.
To be fair, though, Provo, Utah is certainly not the type of society that a man like Gary Gilmore could fit into. This is a very small town, very conservative, very Mormon, and Gilmore was rollicking, fun-lovin’, good-ol’-boy with an incredibly dark side that he was all too comfortable to let shine.
A major part of the book focuses on Gilmore’s brief affair with Nicole Baker Barrett, a single mother he meets shortly after arriving in Provo. Together, they are some of the lowest, seediest pieces of pure white trash you will ever read about. Barrett is presented as one of the most shameless sluts that you will ever encounter in either fiction or non-fiction. She essentially will have sex with anything with two legs. For example, prior to meeting Gilmore, she sleeps with a man who picks her up while hitch-hiking, and then promptly marries him.
But that alone is not enough to engender contempt for a hard-done-by young woman who had few opportunities in life, and was used and abused by many. In one episode, she tells a man that she will kill him if he brings charges against Gilmore for attacking him. All the while she demonstrates a sad, despicable neglect towards her children. This does not mean that she is not worthy of sympathy—she is.
Her affair with Gilmore was incredibly short—it spanned a few months immediately before he slaughtered his victims. During that time they did drank a lot of booze, did a lot of drugs, stole a bunch of stuff, had a lot of sex (with each other and others (let’s not forget the drug and alcohol fueled threesome they shared with a minor), they fought, Gilmore beat her a few times, and then she turfed him out of the house they shared. It was only after he committed the murders and was sentenced to death that their supposed love for each other reached such mythical heights in both their minds. That’s when they became the White Trash Romeo and Juliet.
Mailer writes Gilmore in the way that I think he probably was—reckless, deranged, sociopathic, seriously troubled, and, let’s face it, probably empty inside. In the second half of the novel, though, after Gilmore has been incarcerated and is awaiting sentencing, a different Gilmore comes out—one that is smart, somewhat respectable, enlightened even. And as bizarre as his story is, I think the last nine months of his life, in prison, are even more bizarre than the entirety of his life as Gilmore became a man hellbent on execution. He didn’t just want to be executed, he needed to be executed; he couldn’t take living in the world anymore and he wanted out.
The only problem was that the United States had passed comprehensive death penalty legislation in the late 1960’s and no prisoner had been executed in ten years. But Gilmore didn’t care about any of that—he wanted death; so he tried to take his own life and failed three times. That’s when his case became international news, and the media turned his desperation into front page headlines.
Gilmore is eventually executed by firing squad in January 1977, nine months after being initially paroled. And despite being a loathsome person, despite being an evil monster even, when he is executed, you, as the reader, feel as though a great force has been taken out of the world. Gary Gilmore is a tornado, leaving death and destruction in his wake; so when he passes, I must confess, you feel a little empty inside. Even though I have no connection to this man, no shared interests, no emotional attachment, nothing—when those four bullets enter his heart, and his blood drips down his shirt into a pool on the cement prison floor, I felt a tremendous amount of sadness.
And, through all of this, Mailer’s writing is just what it needs to be. It’s not over-embellished, it’s not too cut and dry—it is perfectly engaging and thoroughly informative.
Here is a documentary about the real Gary Gilmore that I found; it’s an interesting watch and it takes a lot less time to get through than the book, so if you just want the facts, here they are: