The Executioner's Song Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Described on its cover as “a true life novel,” The Executioner’s Song focuses on the last nine months in the troubled existence of Gary Gilmore, who, at the time Mailer wrote the book, was the first criminal executed in the United States in more than a decade. After spending nineteen of his pathetic thirty-five years behind bars, Gilmore finally faced a firing squad at Utah State Prison at 8:07 a.m. on January 17, 1977. Although generous with background information, Mailer concentrates on the details of this one man’s life between his release on parole from a federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, and his controversial death.

Under the sponsorship of his cousin Brenda, Gilmore comes to live in Provo, Utah, where his efforts to become a responsible member of society are not entirely successful. He meets nineteen-year-old Nicole Baker Barrett, and the two begin a tempestuous romance. After a quarrel, Gilmore embarks on a crime spree that results in two murders. During a gas station robbery, he kills the compliant attendant, Max Jensen, and he also puts a bullet through the head of Benny Bushnell, the night clerk of a motel that Gilmore holds up.

Apprehended and tried, Gilmore is sentenced to death for first-degree murder. He refuses to appeal his conviction, insisting, despite the intervention of numerous opponents to capital punishment, on his sovereign right to die. After the governor of Utah...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

The Executioner's Song 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.)

The Executioner's Song Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Gordon, Andrew. An American Dreamer: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fiction of Norman Mailer. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980. Gordon examines Mailer’s novels from the perspective of psychoanalytic criticism.

Leigh, Nigel. Radical Fictions and the Novels of Norman Mailer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. An analysis of the political and social themes in Mailer’s novels.

Lennon, Michael, ed. Conversations with Norman Mailer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. A collection of interviews with Mailer in which the novelist reflects on the craft of writing and his approaches to fiction.

Mailer, Adele. The Last Party: My Life with Norman Mailer. New York: Barricade Books, 1997. A revealing autobiography by Mailer’s former wife. Offers insights into their troubled marriage and his turbulent personality.

Merrill, Robert. “Mailer’s Sad Comedy: The Executioner’s Song.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34 (Spring, 1992): 129-148. Merrill explores the theme structure of the novel as well as detailing the paradoxes of the character of the murderer on death row.

Merrill, Robert. Norman Mailer Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Merrill provides a critical and interpretive study of Mailer with a close reading of his major works, a solid bibliography and complete notes and references. A chapter of this study is devoted to The Executioner’s Song.

O’Donnell, Patrick. “The Voice of Paranoia: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.” Prospects 17 (1992): 459-473. Explores the novel’s narrative voice, which is passive yet which contributes to an underlying plan of paranoid narrative. O’Donnell also points out the connections among paranoia, homoeroticism, and homophobia.

Rollyson, Carl E. The Lives of Norman Mailer: A Biography. New York: Paragon House, 1991. Rollyson presents a detailed overview of Mailer’s life and career.