Book Review – The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer selected an extraordinary topic for his “true life novel.” In The Executioner’s Song, he provided a detailed take on the life and subsequent death of Gary Gilmore. The latter’s cold-blooded killings of two innocent men led to the State of Utah sentencing him to death in 1976. To add a twist to this saga, Gilmore didn’t contest the court’s decision. He actually wanted to be killed by a firing squad. At one point he even asked his attorneys: “Now don’t I have the right to die?…Can’t I accept my punishment?” (Page 510) Mr. Mailer took readers along the condemned man’s journey.

This set-up drew me into the story. I found myself anxiously flicking through the e-book version’s screens to discover the next event. While reading the opening sections that described Gilmore’s life following his parole, the author made me sympathetic for his protagonist. One passage reflected my own views rather well.

Court had seen some of his artistic work. Before he met him, Brenda had shown Mont Court a couple of Gary’s drawings and paintings. The prison information he was receiving from Oregon made it clear that Gilmore was a violent person, yet in these paintings Court was able to see a part of the man simply not reflected in the prison record. Mont Court saw tenderness. He thought, Gilmore can’t be all evil, all bad. There’s something that’s salvageable. (Page 55)

The author even added an element of sensitivity to Gilmore. He did so by detailing his relationship with Nicole; the true love of his life. In fact, while awaiting his execution on Utah’s Death Row, his one wish was for the opportunity to see her once more.

Mr. Mailer crafted his prose in an unorthodox way. I interpreted the novel’s structure as a series of brief vignettes held together through the overall narrative’s scope. Each paragraph read like a newspaper blurb. It helped make the 1,109 pages read faster than I expected.

In spite of both the unpleasant subject matter and unusual presentation, Mr. Mailer worked in extraordinary uses of language. Some of them read more like verse than prose.

Overhead was the immense blue of the strong sky of the American West. That had not changed. (Page 20)

“Brenda, I am not insensitive,” said Gary, “to being called insensitive.” (Page 61)

It was as if somebody had hidden sparklers inside her heart in that place where she had expected to find nothing. (Page 172)

It was like waking up from a dream to answer a knock on the door but the knock came from the person you had just kissed in the dream. (Page 349)

Certain kinds of bad news were like mysterious lumps that went away if you paid no attention. (Page 475)

Whole fields of the soul could be defoliated and never leave a trace. (Page 419)

We are only stronger than the things we overcome. (Page 494)

My main criticism related to the book’s length. The beginning section that covered the period prior to Gilmore’s killings engaged me. I nervously read as quickly as I could. The author did an outstanding job piquing my interest in discovering the next event. After the killings, the story became rather cumbersome and even dull. I thought the sections on the individuals battling for the rights to Gilmore’s story too overdrawn. They also lacked the intensity of the book’s beginning. So did the parts on the efforts of various organizations to stay the execution. (By this time, is there anybody living in the United States who doesn’t know how this story ended?)

About a third of the way through the book I completely lost all empathy I had for the main characters. I’ll avoid spoilers for those interested in reading. I will note that depraved would be the best word I could use to describe these people’s behavior. Add to that the vicious nature of Gilmore’s crimes and the last 800 pages became a tortuous slog.

For Mr. Mailer’s efforts The Executioner’s Song received the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  That’s quite an achievement for a story that’s source material included myriad interviews surrounding true events. It’s also a fitting encomium for a work that took such an unconventional approach to an unorthodox subject. Still, I’m glad the author never wrote a sequel to it.

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