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 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.