Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song: In Praise of Big Books

When I found Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song on my father’s book shelf in high school, I thought it would be epic fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien, Terry Brooks, or Robert Jordan (judging the book by its title, my vision of its contents probably anticipated Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy). Instead, Mailer’s masterpiece turned out to be far more thrilling: a meditation on violence, the prison system, the death penalty, the media, Mormonism, and working class America.
I just finished rereading it for the third time, twenty-five years later. As books with a thousand large pages go, The Executioner’s Song is a fast read. Nonetheless, a question remains: why read, let alone reread, big books? Today in the United States it is possible to complete a degree in the humanities and social sciences in many universities without having ever read an entire book, let alone a thousand page tome. Professors assign digestible excerpts and students complain on teaching evaluations that classes demand too much reading. What is lost by avoiding that demand significant effort and time?
In philosophy, a big book gets you as close as can to the mind of another human being who you have never met. Working through Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is a transformative experience. If you immediately understand something, if it immediately resonates with you, chances are you are reading something you’re already familiar with, something that fits your world view. If you expend the effort to absorb hundreds or possibly even thousands of pages, then you are compelled to engage the world from someone else’s experience. You need to give yourself to the author for a period of your life to make any sense of these works. (One danger academics frequently fall into is the dogmatism of allegiance to only one long book…)
The Executioner’s Song is journalism, not philosophy, but accomplishes something similar by immersing the reader in a world transmitted through Mailer’s genius. In its bare bones, the story is banal. Gary Gilmore’s cousin Brenda sponsors his release from prison after serving thirteen years for armed robbery. She brings him to Provo, Utah and her father gives him a job in his shoe store. Gary has spent most of his life in prison and juvenile detention facilities and does not adjust. Impulsive and possibly psychopathic, he spends much of the day drinking beer that he shoplifts or buys by borrowing money from family and co-workers. He gets into an obsessive relationship with a young, single mother Nicole Baker, but becomes abusive. After Nicole leaves him, he picks up her mentally ill sister April and drives to a gas station where orders the attendant Max Jensen to empty his pockets and lie down on the bathroom floor. Then he shoots him in the head. The next night he murders Ben Bushnell in a motel. He is captured and sentenced to death.
No one had been executed in the United States for ten years with people on death row delaying their executioners with appeals. Gilmore refuses to appeal, choosing to die by firing squad. The ACLU and other attempt to stop the execution, the US and later world media arrive in Utah to fight to own Gary’s store. There is also the pathological love story of Nicole and Gary. At Gary’s urging, Nicole smuggles drugs into the prison and they attempt a double-suicide. Nicole is committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Mailer’s miracle is to let dozens of characters speak. Remarkably, almost everyone involved does speak to Mailer and to Larry Schiller who succeeded in acquiring the rights to Gary’s story. Mailer sorts through thousands of pages of interviews and newspaper stories and distills each character and event to incisive paragraphs that reveal more than the character know. The closest parallel I know of to The Executioner’s Song is to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace: characters and their motives are revealed by a few sentences.
Here is the first paragraph where Mailer illustrates why Brenda sponsored Gary:
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 (5).
Here Mailer reveals the character of about Roger Eaton, who was briefly one of Nicole’s lovers during her time with Gary:
Roger Eaton wasn’t too backward about telling Nicole how he was well liked, and had practically been a movie star at his senior prom in high school. He’d had a nice time dating his wife, who was a sweet smart hometown girl from a good Mormon family. Which was all right with Roger. He didn’t practice anything, but he didn’t mind having a little religion in the family. What with the salaries he and his wife were making, they could buy a Dodge for her and for himself a nice like Malibu hardtop. It would have been swell, he assured Nicole, but here they’d only been married six months and his wife had developed colitis (209).
In a few paragraphs, Mailer illustrates American poverty and the medical system from the perspective of Grace, one of the Gilmore boy’s teachers, and Gary’s mother Bessie. Gaylen, Gary’s brother, comes back after five years “with Janet, his wife, and a bleeding stomach.” Bess – Gary and Gaylen’s mother – thinks it’s an ulcer, but he had been stabbed with an ice pick. After midnight, Janet calls Grace, asking for a ride to Milwaukie hospital.
            Grace did, but Gaylen could not get admitted. He had neither a welfare card nor a doctor.
On the hospital’s suggestion, they went on to Oregon City. There, Gaylen was told the same thing again. It was now two in the morning. The next hospital said no. Grace said she would sign for his treatment, whatever it cost, but they said he needed a doctor to admit him. Grace thought: This boy is going to die in the back seat of my car.
At the Medical School, they were told to wait, and my God, they sat there until a quarter after five. Gaylen, in considerable pain, finally stood up and told the women he would wait no longer. Grace said good-bye at the motel. Grace said, Call me if I can help you, and went home thinking they could lay her out next to a basket case and little to choose. (490-1)
Here is Barry Farrell, a journalist working with Larry Schiller on a Playboy interview with Gary, reflecting on Gary’s decision to give his eyes to a young man:
By God, was Gary like Harry Truman, mediocrity enlarged by history? Christ, he had even become the owner of a cottage industry: the precise remains of Gary Gilmore. That, to Farrell, was more impressive than any ability to steer a firm course toward execution. Farrell had not been much impressed by that bravery. Gilmore, he thought, had a total contempt for life, his life, your life, anyone’s life. Waived his own away because it was a boss thing to do, showdown shit, pure pathology that came out of long years of playing chicken with prison authorities. Yet, now, overnight new celebrity, movie star without porfolio, Gilmore was responding humanely to all the attention, actually functioning like a decent man. Those eyes redeemed the scene. (858)
Lucinda, a recent English graduate employed as a typist, captures the character of the US media:
On Saturday night, she did take a break and turned on the TV. There was “Saturday Night Live.” They had a parody of Gary Gilmore. The case was putting makeup on an actor playing the convict and the director kept saying, “A little more light over here, a little more eye shadow.” They were getting him ready to be shot for the camera. Very sarcastic. Kept putting on the makeup. She never thought television would be this weird. She had always thought “existential” was an odd word, but it now was so bleak and cold outside, just a little bit of eternal snow on the ground, and she felt as if no one had ever gone out of this motel with these Xerox machines, and the typewriters (910).
Exhaustive and exhausting, the effect of these passage – and there are thousands of them – is to portray America from hundreds of angles. Gilmore’s crimes and execution provide a scaffolding to illustrate a people and a way of life. It is not the mythological America of the city on the hill, but a far harsher place where acts of generosity, sympathy, and love are that much more uplifting.
Perhaps Mailer’s most remarkable achievement is that he never makes Gilmore sympathetic despite Gary’s charm and his gifts as an artist and a writer. The love story with Nicole is complex and troubling and Gilmore is ultimately revealed as a manipulator and egoist. What Mailer does accomplish is to make Gilmore understandable, shaped by the American justice system, but never entirely reduced to his environment.

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