The Executioner's Song (Magill's Literary Annual 1980)
Norman Mailer has been, by dint of personality as well as overt effort, the most public American man of letters since Ernest Hemingway. Indeed, his popular reputation relies as much upon his acts as upon his words. Behind the public persona of Mailer, however, behind the macho posturing, the obnoxious braggadocio, and the quixotic political ventures, there has always lurked a writer of great ability, a writer who is frequently very good and who, even in failure, is usually at least interesting. Mailer made his early mark as a writer of fiction, most notably with The Naked and the Dead. More recently he turned to “new journalism,” filtering contemporary events through the prism of his unique and sharply honed consciousness. In a series of books and magazine articles, he explored such subjects as space shots and Vietnam protest, always bringing to his material a passionate self-involvement and making his own perceptions and reactions the focal point of his approach.
The Executioner’s Song is “new journalism” of a different order. Mailer is again dealing with real-life materials, but this time he effects an almost naturalistic tone of detachment and objectivity. Not only does he remove his own consciousness from the immediate narration of his story, but he also goes to considerable pains as his story progresses to shift the...
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In The Executioner's Song, Mailer narrates the life of condemned murderer Gary Gilmore and of the age in which he grows to kill. Much of the early part of the book concerns Gilmore's parole and his inability to adjust to life outside of prison. He is a solitary character who finds it virtually impossible to connect solidly with other people. Many of the people he meets share a similar fate. There is not only Gary's girlfriend Nicole, who can seem to live only for him, but also Pete Galovan, who beats up Gilmore in a fight, but who has been on a similar quest, to find himself through a series of failed jobs and relationships. Gilmore, the quintessential outsider, the man who cannot fit in, nevertheless becomes a representative figure in the very loneliness and incorrigibly individual Americanness of his frustrating efforts to live in a Mormon community.
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The Executioner's Song reads like a latter day An American Tragedy (1926) because it emulates the size of Theodore Dreiser's huge, compelling epic. Like An American Tragedy, The Executioner's Song has a documentary doggedness. It refuses to explain in definitive terms its main character. It follows Dreiser in projecting an ambitious appetite for encompassing the whole of American experience, for painstakingly recording the myriad details of individual lives, and — most importantly — for arousing wonder at the ambiguities of human identity. Dreiser's attention to the Western and Eastern voices in Clyde Griffiths's story, to the great social and psychological gap between the Western and Eastern branches of his family, and to Clyde's gradual absorption in the imperatives of the Eastern Establishment, including the "gross publicity . . . attending everything in connection with him," with his murder of his fiancee, Roberta Alden, strongly prefigures Gary Gilmore's story. Even in terms of its two-book structure, "Western Voices" and "Eastern Voices," and of a country divided against itself, The Executioner's Song resembles An American Tragedy.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
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