In The Executioner's Song, Mailer is exploring the uncertainties of an American selfhood and a society that build up into an intolerable tension in his main characters. Gilmore, for example, cannot control his compulsive and ambiguous behavior. He arbitrarily kills a clean-cut gas station attendant and provides no convincing explanation. Yet by implication, by the way Mailer sets his scenes in this understated "true life novel," it is clear that Gilmore cannot abide the antiseptic neatness of the gas station attendant, for Gilmore "was marked up much more than" his cousin Brenda (who arranged his release from prison) expected. Just looking at one of his very bad scars she feels a "strong sense of woe." This is a telling phrase in a book that does not attempt comprehensive explanations of human behavior. Rather, the themes are rigorously understated, and the writer's style is meant to evoke a kind of emptiness in the environment that cannot be easily filled or rationalized with words.
(The entire section is 162 words.)