The Executioner's Song

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

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 consciousness among the characters in his tale. Among his achievements in this book is Mailer’s almost uncanny ability to locate an idiom, a nuance of speech, or a shade of expression which subtly but deftly reveals the character through whose eyes and ears a segment of the narrative is being perceived.

The raw material of The Executioner’s Song is the nine-month period between the April, 1976, parole of Gary Gilmore from prison and the January 17, 1977, death of Gilmore at the hands of a Utah firing squad. From this raw material Mailer has fashioned a compelling and often gripping narrative with an astonishing array of finely etched characters.

Mailer tells his tale in two parts. The first and better part, “Western Voices,” focuses on Gilmore the man, following him from his release from prison, through his halfhearted and unsuccessful attempt to make it on the outside, his cold-blooded and pointless murders of two unarmed and unresisting men, his unremarkable trial and sentence of death, and, finally, to his decision to renounce the appeals process and to demand that the state carry out the death sentence which it had imposed. It was this act which separated Gilmore from the dozens of other inmates of death row who were waiting out the tedious business of the appellate courts and which suddenly turned Gary Gilmore into a household name, an instant celebrity who was the subject of front-page stories and six o’clock news reports. It was likewise this act which attracted to Utah dozens of legitimate journalists as well as scores of hucksters and hustlers trying to make a buck from the merchandising of Gary Gilmore.

This shabby saga of media hype and amoral profiteering was largely the work of slickers from the East coast and is the focus of the second part of the book, “Eastern Voices.” This subject matter is inherently less interesting than that of “Western Voices,” and Mailer’s decision to devote several hundred pages to Gilmore the media event causes the pace of the book to slow appreciably. Fortunately, Mailer returns to Gilmore the man for the last hundred and fifty pages, in which he recounts the approach of execution day and, finally, of Gilmore’s last hours, the execution itself, the ensuing autopsy and cremation, and the maudlin memorial service...

(The entire section is 1501 words.)