Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

Over 1,300 posts on Fifty Books Project, and not one mention of one of the luminaries of American literature, Norman Mailer. Maybe he falls a little outside our purview, or maybe he’s overlooked nowdays as one of the “great male narcissists [who] dominated postwar American fiction”1, as David Foster Wallace called them, for their supposed misogyny and nearsightedness... or maybe it’s just because there’s a lot of reading to do and only so much time in which to do it.

I had never read Mailer either, in spite of having a copy of The Naked and the Dead sitting on my bookshelf for a few years, but The Executioner’s Song caught my attention in the bookstore for two reasons--it was huge, and the premise--a man, Gary Gilmore, is given the death penalty and executed--didn’t seem like enough to support the length. Not to mention that it was a true story and I’d never heard of Gary Gilmore. So my interest was piqued.

In some ways, the single-sentence summary above does the book justice--it is single-minded in the sense that it keeps the execution front and center throughout--but, of course, further explication is necessary. Gilmore spent over half of his life behind bars, beginning as a juvenile. In 1976, he was paroled and sent to live with his cousin Brenda in Provo, Utah, the heart of Mormon country. During this time he struck up a tempestuous, intense relationship with a young single mother named Nicole Baker, and, after an unusually severe fight and breakup, killed two men, execution style, over a two night period. He was caught and sentenced to death, notable because, at the time, the U.S. was currently in the midst of a moratorium on the death penalty, imposed by Furman vs Georgia in 1972.

The death sentence happens less than halfway through the book. The rest is the story of Gilmore’s fight to be allowed to die and the media circus that surrounded him. Because of the moratorium, numerous civil rights groups, including the ACLU, were fighting Gilmore’s execution, even though he wished for his sentence to be carried out, because they feared, correctly, that if Gilmore was executed, many others would be executed in short order.

Normally, in a story like this, there are clearly defined heroes and villains, and, in true stories, if the facts don’t point to a clear dichotomy, the author usually chooses sides and, inadvertently or not, paints one side more sympathetically. Not so Mailer in The Executioner’s Song. As long as it is, the novel is a picture of restraint, with Mailer refusing to cast Gilmore as a misguided saint or his antagonists, such as they are, as anything other than complicated people with (generally) legitimate reasons for the things they do. It would have been far easier as a reader if I could have seen Gilmore as a monster or the ACLU lawyers as hypocrites, but Mailer’s thoroughness doesn’t really allow for such simplistic line-drawing. Even Gilmore’s motivations for the murders are in question: were they emotional responses to his problems with Nicole? Inevitable behaviors for a bad seed like Gary? Indicators of some deeper mental issue? Results of repressed pedophilic impulses? Deus Ex Machinas handed down from unfeeling gods? We’re never told, and the length of The Executioner’s Song serves as a challenge. Mailer seems to be saying, “Here’s all the information. Figure it out.”

There are moments in The Executioner’s Song that cut deep, like Mailer’s sensitive portraits of the two men Gilmore killed, but even here, he resists the urge to beatify, communicating the facts in flat, affectless prose that works even better than cloying melodrama. Gilmore’s letters to Nicole are the same way--of course, love letters from a man on death row are going to contain some pathos, but Mailer doesn’t edit, and their contents reveal Gilmore’s duality as well as his humanity, his intense longing beside his almost feral brutality. Finally, after Gilmore’s execution, the one spot where a little bit of punch-pulling might be in order, Mailer refuses look away from the grislier aspects of Gilmore’s death--including his autopsy, described in some detail--and the unresolved grief of his victims’ families and Nicole, who Mailer even dares to suggest may someday forget Gilmore, ostensibly her soulmate throughout his time on death row. At risk of hitting the point too many times, Mailer refuses to espouse one simple answer to the questions he raises. It’s what makes The Executioner’s Song worthwhile, what justifies its length, and it’s a good argument for why Mailer, great male narcissist or not, deserves to be part of the “great authors” conversation.

1The others being John Updike and Philip Roth, who we at 50B apparently love.


Christopher said...

Sounds good. Did it earn the length?

Brent Waggoner said...

I think the length is really necessary to give all the information to the reader--it's clearly a labor of love but it never felt self-indulgent to me, and it's a very, very easy read.