Norman Mailer would have had a masterpiece on his hands if this book was about half its length. At over a thousand pages long, The Executioner’s Song is an imposing tome. The book follows the infamous murderer Gary Gilmore, who was the first man executed in the United States after it was made legal again in 1976.
Mailer’s intention in writing the book is unclear. The first half, the better half, wants to understand what drove Gilmore to his senseless crime. It starts shortly before Gilmore’s release from a lengthy prison sentence for armed robbery. Having spent over half his life in jail, Gilmore has trouble adjusting. He begins to drink, fight, and generally piss people off. He also falls madly in love with Nicole Baker, a twenty-year old with two kids, three ex-husbands, and a boat-load of troubles. Their stormy relationship and Gilmore’s pride in being a hardened “con” drive him, in a fit of post-break up rage, to shoot and kill two working men in separate robberies.
The description in this part of the book is impeccable. Mailer finds ominous threads woven in seemingly innocuous objects and interactions. This is what sets Mailer apart from other crime writers and what makes the first part of the book a delight. Whereas other authors fetishize the crime, spewing blood and guts all over their pages, Mailer focuses on the little things that surround such shocking event. This reminds readers why these crimes are so terrible, they involve real people not movie-of-the-week monsters.
Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire book is during Gilmore’s first murder. After robbing a gas station Gilmore forces Max Jensen, a new father and devout Mormon, to the bathroom:
It was a bathroom with green tiles that came to the height of your chest, and tan-painted walls. The floor, six feet by eight feet, was laid in dull gray tiles. A rack for paper towels on the wall had Towl Savr printed on it. The toilet had a split seat. An overhead light was in the wall.
Gilmore brought the Automatic to Jensen’s head. “This one is for me,” he said, and fired.
“This one is for Nicole,” he said, and fired again. The body reacted each time.
However, after Gilmore’s trial The Executioner’s Song takes a drastic dive in quality. The book becomes a series of squabbles between an endless barrage of lawyers and reporters. It is hard to tell characters like Schiller from characters like Stagner and even harder to care about any of them. Part of me wishes I had just stopped reading after Gilmore’s sentencing because everything else seemed a waste of time. Oddly, in this section Mailer takes no position on whether or not the death penalty is appropriate. Instead his narrative appears to rely on suspense over whether Gilmore will be executed or not. This is incredibly foolish as Gilmore is more famous than this book and is famous specifically for being executed.
I do not know if Mailer is simply trying to create a compendium extolling every event in the entire story, or if he is trying to say something meaningful about the death penalty. Either way it is not particularly satisfying.
If any readers are looking for a meaningful exploration of the death penalty I would suggest either the 2011 film “Into the Abyss” by Werner Herzog or the 1957 essay Reflections on the Guillotine by Albert Camus.