Study Guide

The Executioner's Song

by Norman Mailer

The Executioner's Song Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Executioner’s Song appeared at a time when critics (and Mailer himself) had become tired of the way his personality tended to dominate everything he wrote. He wanted to find a subject that would be bigger than his ego and that would force him to write in a different style. Presented with a massive amount of material by Larry Schiller, who had bought the rights to Gilmore’s story, Mailer found that he had hundreds of characters to work with, speaking on tape and in documents that amounted to a massive social novel which would ultimately cover virtually every region in the United States through the voices of people describing their involvement in Gilmore’s life.

Conducting new interviews and immersing himself in the thousands of pages of court record and press coverage, Mailer developed an objective, precise, spare voice that had the ring of authenticity, for it was a voice that did not seem to make any more of the experience than what a reader could observe in the accounts on the page.

The Executioner’s Song is divided into two parts, “Western Voices” and “Eastern Voices.” The first part begins with the release of Gilmore from prison and the efforts of his relatives to find him a decent job and place to live. Gilmore has trouble adjusting, coping with the everyday necessities of working, shopping, eating, and so on. He falls in love with Nicole Baker, a young woman he is sure he has met in another life, and...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

The Executioner's Song Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Long-time felon Gary Gilmore, an intelligent man with artistic talents, a sense of pride, and little common sense, has spent nearly two-thirds of his thirty-five years of life in various penal institutions. He is being released early from the federal maximum-security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, after a term for robbery in Oregon. He writes his cousin Brenda Nicol, with whom he has maintained a sporadic correspondence since they grew up together, to ask if she would serve as his sponsor once he regains his freedom. Brenda, who is in Utah, agrees.

Soon after Gary arrives in Provo, Utah, he moves in with his aunt and uncle, Vern and Ida Damico. Gary begins working at low pay as a shoe repairman in Vern’s shoe store and tries to become acclimated to his freedom. He clumsily dates a few women, plays cards with new acquaintances who quickly take a disliking to him, drops in without warning on area relatives and their families, and often drinks too much. He is a restless loner, is awkward with other people—his quick temper and talk of prison and violence makes others nervous—and has difficulty adjusting to life out of prison.

Gary violates his parole by hitchhiking to Idaho, and he is arrested there for driving without a license and for beating up a man; the charges, however, are dropped. Gary’s parole officer, Mont Court, a devout Mormon, does not report Gary to prison authorities in Oregon, where Gary’s parole originated. Though he takes a better paying but menial job at a thriving insulation shop, Gary’s frustration escalates. He performs acts of vandalism and petty theft, and stays inebriated much of the time. He invites new drinking buddy Rikki Baker to help him rob a bank, but...

(The entire section is 704 words.)