I have not traveled much recently, but I have read. Here is my take on the novel “The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer, a book I have wanted to read for a long time and finally did between August and October. This piece is also posted on my Goodreads page as a book review, but without the links.
There’s an assumption I took into reading “The Executioner’s Song” that the condemned prefer not to die, at least not at the hands of the state that has condemned them. Gary Gilmore turned that assumption on its head, which is at least in part what makes his story stand apart from other death row inmates in the annals of criminal history. It is in fact what captured the curiosity and interest of the U.S. and the world at the time the events unfolded in 1976 and 1977.
“The Executioner’s Song” is the only Norman Mailer book I’ve read to date, so I cannot compare it to any of his other works, but it is considered one of his greatest. In spite of the book telling a true story that aims for as much veracity as possible, it won a Pulitzer Prize in FICTION the year after it was published. The Executioner’s Song is considered a “non-fiction novel,” which is a little perplexing to me, because I don’t know whether I’m reading a novel like Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” that weaves in factual historical events and people, or a non-fiction book that essentially narrates true crime events that draw on interviews, news stories, police reports, and other research, like, for instance, Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me.” In some ways, it reads more like the latter, yet it leaves the reader feeling as if they have experienced a transcendent literary work.
In what might be a good example of “truth is stranger than fiction,” were Gary Gilmore and the other characters in the book not real people, this would be a hell of a work of fiction. The closest simulacrum to “The Executioner’s Song” is likely to be Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” another non-fiction novel published about 13 years before that also garnered much praise for its author’s ability to fit eloquence and style to the basest natures of humanity.
My take on the difference between these two non-fiction novels is that “In Cold Blood” achieves its eloquence from the skill of Capote’s authorship, not necessarily from Dick and Perry, while “The Executioner’s Song” gets a lot of help from what Mailer mined from Gilmore’s raw material. It is said that Gilmore had a high IQ. No one would refute his artistic talent. Gilmore also exhibited a degree of introspection, erudition, and curiosity (evidenced in some of the conversations he had with visitors, like Lawrence Schiller, who eventually went on to turn Gilmore’s story into a TV movie, or like the priest, Father Meersman). Much is made of Gilmore’s last words being “Let’s Do It,” but the story indicates that his actual final words were spoken to the priest in Latin: “Dominus vobiscum.”
To some degree, every crime story is tragic because of the tremendous loss of life — victims and perpetrators. One critical turning point that sticks out for me is when Gilmore was released conditionally to attend art classes because of his talent for drawing. Instead of enrolling and following through on the art program, Gilmore turned toward crime again and ended up back in prison for an additional nine years. (It’s notable that Gilmore’s own younger brother Mikal Gilmore found success in a creative field; he became a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine and also published several books, including one about his brother.)
The crux of the tragedy — aside from the fact that so many of these stories compel us, the viewing public, to focus more on the psychology of the perpetrator than on the heartbreaking sacrifice of, in this particular case, two innocent victims who were hard at work living clean lives — is the Why.
Why did Gilmore commit these murders, especially when his other crimes to that point were thefts, break-ins, armed robberies?
Why did he insist on holding the state to its “promise” of execution, when so many around him fought for Life (his, but also against capital punishment generally)?
Why did Gilmore posit his mother as a saint, exonerated of any contribution to the direction of his life?
Why did Gilmore cling to a teenage woman-child he was with for merely 8 weeks as his only reason for living?
Why, in spite of his insistence on dying, did he indicate that he would trade execution for the chance to slip out a side door to freedom, never to be found again?
Mailer attempts to answer some of these questions. Gilmore’s obsession with Nicole Baker, his possible remorse over the murders of two innocent men, his wish for death instead of a lifetime in a prison cell. At a couple of points throughout the novel and one particular point later in it, the author indicates that Gilmore may have had irresistibly strong urges toward sexual encounters with underage girls and that he’d rather die than have to wrestle with those. That, combined with his belief that he should pay for his crimes, combined with another belief that his soul after death could merge eventually with his beloved Nicole’s, once she joined him on the other side, all added up to a death wish. Gilmore attempted suicide on a couple of occasions, but he knew that none of his attempts would be as certain as the Firing Squad.
When the execution occurred, more than one character in the novel mused that they wondered what it actually accomplished.
If Gilmore went to his death hoping he could merge souls with Nicole Baker as soon as she would arrive, he would have a long wait in earthly time; Ms. Baker is still living, under a different surname, somewhere out of the public eye, somewhere in the U.S., apparently having put out the fire on the legacy she is most known for.
A note about the style in which Mailer wrote “The Executioner’s Song”: The eloquence of the title stands in stark contrast to the sparse, spare, and masculine sentence structure and overall delivery of the book. Some of the sentences struck me as non sequiturs. Others sounded like they must have been manufactured. The prose got the story across in a way that seemed at times lumbered, at times inspired, and at still other times sacred.
I recommend reading “The Executioner’s Song” to anyone interested in crime, history, personality, and the psychology of (mostly) men who cross into murder. Though I haven’t read Mikal Gilmore’s book “Shot in the Heart” yet, I’d think “The Executioner’s Song” should go hand-in-hand with it in order to get a fuller picture of what it was like to know and even grow up with Gary Gilmore, a self-destructive man who was at once a victim of his own choices, of the juvenile system, and of his devotion to his young “elf” he might have seen as his sole route to redemption.