The Executioner’s Song, like all memorable literature, is a good story well told. The plot revolves around a multitude of large issues, matters such as good and evil, sacred and profane, nature versus nurture, acceptance and rejection, and life and death. Characters are complex persons sharply defined by their speech and behavior. Action, particularly in the first half of the novel, is crisp and clear. Suspense rises to a satisfying conclusion. The implications of the story resonate in the readers’ minds long after the book has been finished. Norman Mailer’s genius in this best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning “true-life novel” lies not in the story itself but in its presentation. Because the story is based on real-life people and events that transpired—and were played out by media—not long before Mailer’s book was published, the typical reader knows in advance how the story ends.
Mailer takes advantage of his journalist’s eye: He offers small, telling details gleaned from exhaustive research and hours of interviews with many of the principals and dozens of minor figures in the case. Mailer gives information from a nonjudgmental, unobtrusive, omniscient perspective, an unusual position for Mailer, who in one form or another is often a significant presence in his work.
Mailer employs a cinematic approach as a refinement of the reportorial methods of such “nonfiction novels” as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966). These novels comprise the genre called New Journalism. In The Executioner’s Song, Mailer cuts from scene to scene. He zooms in for extreme close-ups or pulls back for long panoramic shots. He uses a multitude of viewpoints and filters everything through his own consciousness. Despite its length (more than one thousand pages), The Executioner’s Song seldom drags, though it sometimes digresses to the point that the main narrative thrust, that the wages of sin is death, is lost.
Like a modern illustration of Leo Tolstoy’s maxim at the beginning of his novel Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886)—“every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—The Executioner’s Song provides a realistic and compelling examination of a specific life,...
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