For some twenty years now, Norman Mailer has been promising the world a big fat novel about “the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm, and Time.” The Executioner’s Song,1 though it deals with four of the mysteries and is by far the fattest book he has written, is not it. In reconstructing the last nine months in the life of Gary Gilmore—the thirty-six-year-old Utah murderer who three years ago refused to appeal the death sentence and insisted on his right to be executed—Mailer has tried to combine two different modes in one. His account of an actual crime and its punishment, he assures us in the afterword, “does its best to be factual,” yet in calling it a “true-life novel” he is also claiming that the book has been informed and dramatically shaped by the writer’s imagination. But special labels for seemingly unclassifiable books are one thing, and reconciling the separate demands of truth and fiction is quite another thing.
Truman Capote, faced with the similar problem of defining In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, announced that he had invented a new literary form, the “non-fiction novel.” Whatever this hyperbole may mean, it was the eye of Capote the novelist that spotted the literary promise in a gruesome murder case that had received little publicity outside of Kansas. During the years he worked on the book, Capote came to know the condemned killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, like a friend and brother. Not only is Capote’s responsive presence vividly felt throughout In Cold Blood, but he did not hesitate to make up conversations, attribute thoughts and feelings to his real characters which they could not have confided to him, and impose theatrical and metaphoric intensity on the bare facts—all in the untrammeled spirit of inventive fiction. Mailer never met Gary Gilmore, who became as famous as a movie star during his brief flare of iniquitous glory, and he agreed to write the book months after Gilmore was executed, when a great deal of the research had already been accumulated by others. The prose of The Executioner’s Song, which Mailer pounded out in fifteen breakneck months, makes it clear that he has taken far less liberty with the record than Capote did. Paradoxically, Capote devised an explicit title for his embroidered narrative, while Mailer, journalistic to a fault, chose an obscurely figurative title (already used for a poem in his Cannibals and Christians, in 1966) that is more sound than sense. Overall, one is left with the impression that Mailer never completely overcame a fatal ambivalence about both the material and the method of The Executioner’s Song.
The flat, impersonal style of The Executioner’s Song is so radically unlike that of Mailer’s novels, essays, and previous journalism—which are generally marked by self-exposure and self-assertion—that one reads it in bewilderment. The language displays almost none of Mailer’s characteristic “fireworks of virtuosity” (his phrase), and there is no sign of the brilliantly intrusive commentator who dominates his journalism whether he is writing about astronauts, a protest march on the Pentagon, or women’s lib. In dealing with Gilmore, Mailer resists the urge to be the enfant terrible of the literary world or the theoretician of the demonic instructing us in the “existential” significance of Gary Gilmore’s wretched history. Instead, we listen to the often semi-literate and banal “true-life” voices of everyone whose life touched Gilmore’s, however briefly, during those fateful nine months—his girlfriend and mother, the Utah relatives who offered him a chance at a normal existence, the prison guards and lawyers, and, stampeding through the second half of the book, the ratpack of journalists and hustlers lusting after every penny the drama might yield—as recorded endlessly in the many hours of taped interviews on which Mailer based the narrative.
Mailer has made no secret of the fact that he took on the Gilmore job for the money—a quarter of a million dollars before he wrote a word—but, considering his fascination with psychopathic personality and murder as the rebel’s violent tactic for shocking bourgeois liberals out of their complacency, the subject itself must have been seductive. In “The White Negro,” written in 1957, Mailer proposed the sensational idea that murder is the affirmation of existential courage, and the psychopath who enacts his violent impulses is the one genuinely free individual, bound by nothing but “the rebellious imperatives of the self.” One would have expected Mailer the quondam existentialist, in taking on the story of a murder, to make an audacious effort to apotheosize Gilmore’s crimes as acts of heroic defiance. But Mailer has done nothing of the kind. He imposes no hip abstractions on Gilmore’s sordid history and deranged soul, neither of which could have sustained such a complicated intellectual burden. As the honors of Gilmore’s life pile up, it is impossible to draw any rational conclusion whatsoever about the doomed nature of this man, or even begin to guess what might have been done to alter his record of delinquency.
Without elaboration, the voices on the tapes, bearing unconscious and unliterary witness to the shabby underside of Mormon Utah, relate Gilmore’s story at a bleak and listless pace: “The poker games continued. Different people. By the third night, Sterling got Rikki aside and asked if he would take Gary somewhere. The guy was really getting on everybody’s nerves. So Rikki asked if he wanted to chase down some girls. Gary said Yeah.” But now and then the artless recollections provide a sense of the naive, generous, hopeful people who tried so hard to absorb Gilmore into the uneventful ordinariness of their working-class lives, and did not realize until it was too late that he could never fit in anywhere.
There were four Gilmore sons, born to a Mormon mother and a Catholic father who claimed he was an illegitimate son of Harry Houdini. (This would make Gary Gilmore one-quarter Jewish—a bemusing detail.) His mother said that from the time Gary was three years old, she knew he was going to be executed. When he came to Provo on parole from an Illinois penitentiary, sponsored by relatives who had not seen him in years, he had already spent more than half of his life in prison, beginning with reform school when he was thirteen. He was pathetically unable to cope with the minor necessities of freedom, like buying a pair of Levi’s at J. C. Penney, and dangerously ill-equipped to handle more pressing matters like the ups and down of a love affair. Highly intelligent and articulate, he went berserk at the slightest frustration.
Gilmore was at once pitiable and vicious, but his girlfriend, Nicole Baker, was pure feckless pathos. She was only nineteen when she met him shortly after he got to Provo, but she had already been twice divorced (married for the first time at fourteen) and had two small children. She honestly could not remember how many men she had slept with, from the time she was eleven. Submissive and docile, she drifted through her days, too dumb to be wary. When Gary asked her to commit suicide—he believed they were star-crossed lovers “scheduled to meet on the other side”—she did not need much persuading. A patsy for the trashiest kind of pop sentimentality about love and death, she saw herself as a tragic heroine after Gary was locked up, conveniently forgetting that she had moved out on him before the murders because she was scared by his “aura of evil.”
When he could not find her, Gilmore shot two young men to death on successive nights while robbing a gas station and a motel. They had not resisted handing over the money ($250), and the murders seem to have been an afterthought. Yet the psychiatrists called in by the state of Utah pronounced Gilmore sane and competent to stand trial. One of them later admitted that “the best-kept secret in psychiatric circles was that nobody understood psychopaths, and few had any notion of psychotics.”
Surprisingly, even this provocative confession does not draw Mailer into the ring, though the difference between psychopaths and psychotics was crucial to his argument in “The White Negro.” What becomes clear at this point is that Mailer’s book belongs not to Gary Gilmore but to the marketing of Gary Gilmore. The second half of The Executioner’s Song, in which the hounds of ballyhoo descend on Utah and turn Gilmore into a worldwide celebrity, is called “Eastern Voices,” to mark off the incongruent worlds that converged at the gallows for the first execution in ten years: the slick power-mongers of the media and the “Western Voices” of Utah that fill Part I. Norman Mailer understands better than most, given his obsession with celebrity and power, the journalists and self-promoters who exploited Gilmore and everyone connected with him in the hysterical weeks before his execution. The clamoring voices now heard on the tapes, as Mailer synchronizes their machinations, reveal a species of cupidity and greed that inflames his imagination as the simple folk of Utah could never do.
First came an amateur, Dennis Boaz, a spacey lawyer who was “into” Sufi and meditation. He did not last long once the pros came on the scene, but as Gilmore’s putative lawyer he was allowed to have long and intimate conversations with the prisoner which ended up in the London Daily Express. A master of psychobabble, Boaz told a Los Angeles reporter that Gary “believes in karma . . . and that the manner in which he dies can be a learning experience for others.” Then David Susskind sniffed a good thing, and sent a screenwriter to look into the movie potentiality in “the choreography of the crimes,” only to find that a foxy hustler named Lawrence Schiller had already wormed his way into Gilmore’s confidence, and sweet-talked the family into letting him have “exclusive rights” to any entertainments the story might eventually bring about.
In Schiller, Mailer has an ideally acquiescent operator willing to tell anyone his basest thoughts and schemes: an operator so calculating and full of moral hypocrisy that he dominates “Eastern Voices” like a garrulous ogre. A former Life photographer (his pictures of Marilyn Monroe were published with a text by Mailer), he had amassed a small fortune syndicating the stories of Susan Atkins of the Manson family, Marina Oswald and Jack Ruby, Madame Nhu and Lenny Bruce’s widow. His trafficking in dead souls had earned this Chichikovwith-a-Sony the sobriquet “carrion bird.” The occasional prick of conscience he suffers somehow makes Schiller all the more despicable, since he lies to himself as glibly as he does to others.
One can see now why Mailer wrote the book so impersonally, putting a safe distance between himself and the carrion bird. It was Schiller, brandishing his “exclusive rights,” who got Mailer to do the book, and the two of them are splitting the profits. Without Schiller’s relentless “in-depth” interrogation of Gilmore and Nicole and all the others, ostensibly for a Playboy interview, there would have been no book. After a while the incessant questions turned Gilmore into an obedient media machine, coming up with all the right answers for Playboy, and eventually for Mailer. What turned you into a killer? Schiller asks for the hundredth time, and at last Gilmore, no fool, relents, knowing what is expected of him: “I was always capable of murder. . . . There’s a side of me that I don’t like. I can become totally devoid of feelings for others, unemotional.” He sounds like a writer—as though he were talking about someone else. Though Mailer has tried to remove himself completely from the obscene media carnival, his deadpan manner does not manage to conceal the way his material was gathered.
One problem that must have troubled Mailer in writing The Executioner’s Song—in turning, as it were, from personal to group journalism—is how to hold the reader’s interest in this unmusical chorus of voices drawn out to such unmediated length. Some of the time, of course, the events themselves are intrinsically so dramatic that they require no heightening on the part of the author. Though we know how the story comes out, we are riveted by the last-minute efforts, on the part of the ACLU, the NAACP, and various lawyers and pressure groups opposed to capital punishment, to get a stay of execution from the courts. But Mailer’s reliance on the documentary facts, unleavened by comment, art, or opinion, also results in frequent and extended longueurs.
There are some moments in the book, though, when we can feel Mailer struggling against his self-imposed strait-jacket, as an image leaps off the page with a rhetorical power entirely his own: after Gary is sentenced, Nicole looks out to the summer light, where “the horseflies were mean as insanity itself,” and the eyes of a lawyer gleam “like his hooves were flashing in the air.” Whenever Gilmore’s crippled mother, Bessie, is speaking—and she is the one figure in the book with the premeditated look and sound of a character in a novel—we get a sense of the unrealized literary possibilities in this mountain of factuality. Imprisoned by severe arthritis and poverty in a plastic trailer, Bessie Gilmore is tormented by “floods of misery that a son of her flesh had killed the sons of other mothers.” Trying to wring some comfort from good times in the past, she thinks of memory, in her loneliness, as “one’s best and only friend. It was certainly the only touch to soothe those outraged bones that would chafe in the flesh until they were a skeleton free of the flesh.” It is hard to believe that an uneducated woman from Provo could summon up this macabre and finely drawn image, full blown from Jacobean tragedy, or that she would ruminate, like Willa Cather, on “the ongoing world that ground along like iron-banded wagon wheels in the prairie grass.” Unhappily, such eloquence is scarce, especially in the first half of the book, where the prose is so slavishly faithful to the banality of the speakers that it becomes soporific.
Often numbing and fitfully enthralling, this “true-life novel” is an idiosyncratically mixed performance even for Norman Mailer, who habitually lavishes his best and his worst on everything he writes. Yet there is so little of Mailer’s temperament and language here that one hesitates to call it his performance. It is curious that most of the reviews of The Executioner’s Song have ignored its collective provenance, though this surely accounts for those dull stretches when Mailer is grinding out the words of others instead of using his own. It is even more curious that this least characteristic work has received the most unqualified praise Mailer has had in years. For some reason the baffling flatness of style has aroused interpretative extravagance in some reviewers who seem to feel duty bound to prove there is more here than meets the eye. On the front page of the New York Times Book Review Joan Didion announced that Mailer’s subject is “that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor,” when in fact he pays scarcely any attention to the peculiarly Western and Mormon aspects of the Gilmore saga. If Miss Didion means to imply, as I think she does, that the Western emptiness is in some way accountable for Gilmore’s impulse to murder, she is ascribing a visionary design to the book which is simply not there.
For reviewers who want to make cultural statements, it is tempting, I suppose, to see a profound connection between Mailer’s earlier defense of psychopathic violence and the mindless savagery of a punk like Gary Gilmore, though Mailer has wisely refrained from dressing him up as a Raskolnikov of the Rockies. This did not prevent the reviewer in the New Republic from calling The Executioner’s Song a parable of “existential nakedness and plastic death,” and Gilmore a hero who “challenged the anonymous, soulless system of public morality for the sake of his identity.” Mailer is too intelligent to commit such crudity, and in any case the reviewers seem to be thinking not about the Mailer of this book but of the “psychic outlaw” who long ago proclaimed that he “would settle for nothing less than a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” Two decades later, he is willing to settle for much less.
Finally, for all its length The Executioner’s Song still fails to tell us some things it seems important to know. Since the persons who contributed so much to this true-life novel are not invented creatures whose existence comes to a halt on the last page, we are left wondering who gets how big a slice of what is by now a substantial pie. With all the money thrown around in the story, and the hefty rewards for Schiller and Mailer, it is shocking to learn at the end that the person who was most generous to Gary Gilmore from his first day in Provo to his execution—his uncle Vern Damico—was impoverished less than a year after the excitement died down. He had no money for a badly needed operation because his wife was ill and he was left holding the bag in lawsuits brought against his nephew’s estate by the state of Utah, insurance companies, and the victims’ widows. Did any of the Schiller-Mailer earnings make their way to Uncle Vern, or help Bessie Gilmore find a less demeaning place to live? Nasty and suspicious questions, but if this were truly a novel and not true life, we would not ask them.
1 Little, Brown, 1,056 pp., $16.95.