30 August 2018

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer


I am pretty sure I bought this book while I was reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Nothing like a +1,000-paged book to make you want to buy another one apparently. I remember going to the bookstore and having absolutely no idea what I was in for size wise. They only had one copy in store and I was shocked by how massive it was. I was also thrilled that the forward was written by Dave Eggers, and even more happy that JOAN DIDION (love of my life) was on the cover singing Mailer's praises. There was a lot of initial excitement, but it didn't last long once I started reading.

I honestly just don't get the hype. This book is 1100 pages... it has the highest praise from authors I love AND it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. It's about a real-life convicted murderer who was sentenced to death and spent months fighting for his right to die on death row. I thought it was going to be so up my alley, but I just never felt strongly about the book at any point.

It was better than floods of misery that a son of her flesh had killed the sons of other mothers. That burned in her heart like the pain which flared in the arthritis of her knees. Pain was a boring conversationalist who never stopped, just found new topics."

I sped through the first ~300 pages and remember thinking it was a really easy read. Each chapter is divided up into smaller sections which makes it easy to take a break, the writing is very basic and clear, and there's no unique style or flare at all. You simply learn who Gary Gilmore is and about those who surrounded him after his initial prison release. About halfway through the book Gilmore kills two Utah residents and is arrested. His case is presented quickly, and the death penalty is served even quicker. The majority of the book deals with Gilmore's legal battle to actually get the outcome of the sentence he was served.


Gilmore was sentenced to death and refused to appeal. He told the judge he would like his execution to be swift and that he didn't intend to wait around on death row. This is where the book is more interesting. You get a look at how strange and fucked up the American prison and judicial system are. Dave Eggers sums it up great in his introduction to the book:

He did a terrible thing and eliminating him would have left the world tidier. Or so goes the logic of the last fifty years of American justice. We throw away flawed people, people who have made terrible mistakes, with regularity and great alacrity. We jail drug dealers for decades, and we execute killers. We want them away. Out of sight."

The jury decides a man should die for the crimes he has committed - literally following the barbaric "eye for an eye" method. But then the court won't act on the sentence, dealing with dozens of appeals.

I can't even imagine living on death row. I feel like at first you would just be completely depressed knowing that you have been sentenced to death, but then you end up living on death row for decades waiting for your execution that never comes. I don't even know how to explain how I assume you would feel... how psychologically torturous it is and how confusing it would be.

I honestly would say that Mailer only really half showed the psychological impact this had on Gilmore. Gilmore tries to kill himself twice while incarcerated and you can see how strongly his mood would change when a new appeal was made. I just always wanted more from this book.

Something that did comfort me about buying more Mailer and exploring more of his body of work is that Eggers said in his introduction that The Executioner's Song is very unlike Mailer's other work and is not written in his style at all.

Gary Gilmore
What I did appreciate about the book was the enormous amount of research that went into it. Mailer based his 1100 pages off of ~15 hours of interviews per character. And this really comes across in the book. Even though I was reading it and missing any sort of artistic flare, I really did feel like I was learning everything about this case in the most straightforward way. Nothing felt biased. It wasn't even that openly critical of the American prison system.

So you learn A LOT about Gary Gilmore... how he spent his entire life in prison and what it did to him as a man. But you also learn a lot about a slew of other people involved in his life, his trial, and his execution. My favourite was Larry Schiller - a producer who made the deal with Gilmore for his life story and even had a hand in getting Mailer to write this book.

There's this amazing scene where Schiller is at Gilmore's last night celebration and he realizes that he forgot his notebook and can't take notes at the execution. All he has on him is a cheque book and he realizes that he will have to take notes on the back of blank cheques. How disgusting this actually is is not lost on Schiller. And there's something about this moment that just rotted my insides and made me blush. This was his reaction:

There was a bathroom near the visitor's room, and his condition had him going back and forth every five minutes. In addition, he had a near to overwhelming desire to urinate, but nothing was coming out. Nothing. All his insides were fucked up. He had never felt like this in his life. Everything was going crazy."


I will say during the last ~200 pages you do start to feel this panic/anxiety about the execution. You are weirdly cheering for Gilmore to get the end he wants, but this makes you feel VERY weird. You feel creepy wishing for a man's execution, and you are always wondering the entire time if this is what he really wants. This is particularly gut wrenching when Gilmore is "celebrating" his last night with family and friends and earnestly asks a guard to help him escape. You understand that Gilmore doesn't want to die, he just doesn't want to spend the second half of his life in prison.

The execution almost happens too quickly. And I loved the effect it had on me as a reader. You feel like they are rushing it along before the courts can file another appeal and put another stay on it. But then you also want them to slow down and take their time considering this is a human being's last living moments.

Then the warden said, 'Do you have anything you'd like to say?' and Gary looked up at the ceiling and hesitated, then said, 'Let's do it.' That was it. The most pronounced amount of courage, Vern decided, he'd ever seen, no quaver, no throatiness, right down the line."

At the end of the day I am happy, and a bit proud, that I read this book. It is massive and is commonly cited in pop culture. It felt like something I 'had' to read, and I'm glad I did.

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