Well… I’m impressed. I’m not moved or transported or altered in any way, but The Executioner’s Song is what one calls an Achievement, and I certainly can’t argue with its having won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize, even if that year’s also-ran, Housekeeping, develops a tighter, quieter suspense with less sensational material, and a wider philosophical scope in just about 1/5 as many pages as Norman Mailer’s eleven-hundred-page true crime novel.
I started it having never heard of Gary Gilmore. I learned from this book that he spent most of his time in prison and was most likely a sociopath. I learned that he was the first person executed under the death penalty since its re-legalization in 1976, and in fact the novel starts that year, right after Gilmore is released from prison. The story follows him from the time he is released until he is executed for murder less than one year later. It’s not a story with a surprise ending.
What was a surprise was Mailer’s style. I don’t remember anything substantial about The Naked and the Dead, which I read about ten years ago, but I do remember having a strong negative reaction to what I perceived as pompous, self-conscious prose. Perhaps I would feel different about it today, but my point is that The Executioner’s Song provoked no such response from me. Mailer’s voice and any judgment he might have had concerning the events of the story, disappear from the page. He achieves something really remarkable, which is a sustained detachment from these real-life events, without ever sounding like a documentary or a narrator. You feel about as close to the events as you can without actually seeing them occur. Most novels fabricate fiction in order to illustrate truths we can understand in no other way. In The Executioner’s Song, Mailer seems to be trying to strip away fiction from these real-life events, and leave us to decide on our own what truths the facts may imply.
Gary Gilmore’s execution, I’ve learned, was some kind of cultural landmark because of how vehemently it was opposed by anti-death-penalty activists. It was prodigiously covered by the media, and though this kind of coverage of morbid events has become commonplace, it was, apparently, a sporadic enough occurrence at the time. Mailer pored through hundreds of letters and transcripts from interviews of everyone from Gilmore himself, to his girlfriend Nicole Baker, to his family and the families of the men he killed. Many of the interviews with Baker and Gilmore were conducted by writer and filmmaker Larry Schiller.
By all accounts, Gilmore was a charismatic and oddly compelling man, and he is certainly a compelling enough character to propel a reader rapidly through the first 500 pages of the book. Adding fuel to the slow burn of the book’s first half is the depiction of Gilmore’s relationship with 19-year-old, three-time divorcée Nicole Baker. Baker is, in her own way, as charismatic as Gilmore. Her life has been so full of pain and abuse that in her short life that she already seems to have given herself over to whatever tide has swept her out to sea. There is a certain defiance inherent to her submissiveness, as if she’s saying, “Do your worst.” Gilmore himself appears initially as a welcome reprieve from her sadness, but reveals himself, at least to the reader, to be just one more manifestation of the forces that have buffeted Baker thus far. Their love is sick and strong, and brings to light both the best and the worst aspects of Gilmore’s personality.
This first half of the book, which covers the time from Gilmore’s release until his sentencing, is riveting. The second half I found less so, though Mailer’s ability to make characters of various reporters, lawyers, and activists– often in just a few lines describing an impression or gesture– elicited my intellectual respect, if not heartfelt awe. I suppose in the end, even with the unusual restraint Mailer demonstrates in his prose here, what will stay with me is the masterful quality of his work, and not the book itself.