The Books That Built The Blogger: The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

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“I do something truly innovative, and who gets the prizes? Norman Mailer!”

Truman Capote

 

If I had to choose my top five favourite books of all time, two of those five would be fictionalised accounts of real life events – Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates and Underworld by Don DeLillo. There is something about a novel which has, at its base, an actual lived experience that appeals greatly to me.

My fascination with the genre is in the melding of straight, factual journalism and the imagination of the author. Like a journalist, these stories have the facts; the who, where and what and show us the surface of the story. But a fictionalised telling has the luxury of time and of research and can take the reader beyond the facts, developing characters, creating consciousness and positing theories. Non-fiction becomes novel. Tom Wolfe in his book The New Journalism said

It was in the nature of a discovery. This discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would…read like a novel. Like a novel, if you get the picture. This was the sincerest form of homage to The Novel and to those greats, the novelists, of course.

The easy assumption would be that In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, arguably the most famous of this style of writing, was the gateway to my interest, but a closer look at where my fascination started, has brought me to The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, which he classed as ‘A True Life Novel’.

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I’ve read a lot of Mailer over the years and the one thing that can be said about him is that you can never forget that Mailer is writing the book. His brashness, showiness and swagger can be both intoxicating and maddening at the same time. Mailer is no stranger to the fictionalised, journalistic approach to writing, exploring as he has the lives of Lee Harvey Oswald, Marilyn Monroe and Mohammad Ali. But it is in The Executioner’s Song that Mailer so perfectly steps into the background of his tale. Exploring the violent, short and brutal life of killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer seems to have realised that his strength lies in exercising the self-control that Gilmore himself could not. The book has its ultimate anti-hero and Mailer allows him the total focus.

Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared. The apple trees were their grandmother’s best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda’s earliest recollection of Gary.

Before he died, by firing squad at the age of 36, Gilmore had spent 18 of his 35 years in jail. The Executioner’s Song follows Gary’s life, from his release on parole in 1976 on the guarantee of his cousin Brenda to his execution at Utah State Prison in 1977. On parole, Gilmore was both charming and dangerous. Smart, with a talent for drawing, he couldn’t quite escape his own volatility and the prison values he had effectively grown up with. Within a matter of weeks he had moved in with Nicole Baker, an impressionable 19 year old mother of two, who adored him. Theirs was a dramatic, chaotic relationship and although they professed obsessive love for each other, Nicole was victim to his Gary’s frightening tempers and was frequently beaten.

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Gary Gilmore, 1977

 

She finally left him and Gilmore snapped. He robbed and shot an unresisting gas-station attendant and a hotel manager, but was quickly arrested and sentenced to death. Gilmore never denied his crimes, nor did he make any attempt to justify them and he agreed that he deserved to die, however, no one on Death Row in Utah had been executed in ten years. He did not want to spend the rest of this life on Death Row and despite campaigns to save him, he took a legal case for the state of Utah to kill him, by firing squad, as soon as they could. His case called the entire judicial system and the legality of the death penalty into question. Finally, after several stays of execution, Gary Gilmore got his wish and was killed by firing squad in January 1977. His fight for his sentence to be carried out was borne with a dignity and a bravery that he had not afforded his victims.

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.

Before his death, Gilmore sold the rights to his life story to journalist and filmmaker Larry Schiller, who then passed it to Mailer to write. Mailer called Schiller ‘a writer with no hands’ but took this story and made it into a classic of literature.

What was most surprising about this was that the Gary Gilmore story was everywhere in the 1970s. It had been pored over and pawed apart on television, in newspapers and in homes. The ending was never going to be a surprise so there would be no conventional narrative tension, therefore the question was, what was Mailer going to do with it? And could he keep ‘Norman Mailer’ out of it?

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Norman Mailer

 

What he did was to split his book into two parts. The first section ‘Western Voices’, is a direct telling of Gary Gilmore’s story from his release from prison in April 1976 to his arrest, told in the flat, plain mid-Western voices of those around him, mostly the women who were a part of his life. His cousin Brenda, his partner Nicole and his mother Betsey capture a world of desolation and hopelessness with a poignancy of passive acceptance. This, they say, is life and they can do little to change it.

What sparse imagery there is, is that of sinking, of falling – as Brenda had from the apple tree – with nothing to cushion the fall. Mailer perfectly captures the defeated working class frame of mind and allows it to take centre stage without his usual linguistic showiness. The research is meticulous, the story detailed, presenting the man behind the myth and moving relentless towards his inevitable end.

‘Eastern Voices’, the second part of the reveals how the machinery then kicks into place. The voices here – mostly male – are the lawyers, the reporters, the television anchors who covered the story. It focuses on the trial, the fight to be allowed to die and the execution and its fall out. It also features of course, Larry Schiller, whose story this literally and ultimately became. In Eastern Voices, the camera is panning out and the man at the centre, Gary Gilmore, becomes a smaller figure in a wider story which takes on a life of its own.

I think The Executioner’s Song, more than any book I’ve ever done, was an exercise in craft, I’ve never felt close to it

I feel that Mailer has done a disservice to The Executioner’s Song by referring to it as an ‘exercise’ and relegating it to the second division of his body of work. It is a vast, epic book, yet also detailed, nuanced and strangely beautiful. Mailer doesn’t ask for pity for Gilmore, Gilmore never asked for it himself, nor did he give it to his victims. And yet, we do end up feeling pity despite ourselves. The reality of the death penalty is shocking, with the last minute reprieves (sometimes with minutes to go) and the endless legal wrangling seeming often like a form of torture. As a treatise on capital punishment and human nature it is invaluable book, while also being a moving portrait of the quiet, hopeless lives rarely explored in literature.

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The Executioner’s Song was the start of my love for this genre of writing. It lead me to Joyce Carol Oates, who explored the lives of Marilyn Munroe (Blonde) and Jon-Benet Ramsey (My Sister, My Love) and the Chappaquiddick incident (Black Water) with such skill. I wouldn’t have read Gordon Burn, Don DeLillo (Libra, about Lee Harvey Oswald) or Truman Capote. More recent books such as Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites or Emma Cline’s The Girls shows that, as readers, we still want to read behind the facts and explore the worlds behind the sketched outlines.

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Tommy Lee Jones as Gary Gilmore

 

The Executioner’s Song was also made into a movie, directed by Larry Schiller with a screen play by Mailer and a searing, Emmy award-winning performance from a young Tommy Lee Jones. It is well worth checking out.

Check back in to the blog tomorrow when Karen, from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings will be talking about the books that have made her!

Top Ten Tuesday – Character Driven Novels

Top Ten Tuesdays

The theme of this week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and The Bookish is character driven novels. I got to thinking about great characters that I love, but many of them don’t drive the plot. So, I’ve tried to focus on books whose characters are as important as their plots and in some cases, are their own narratives.

1. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

The ultimate anti-hero Ignatius J Reilly is such a love/ hate figure that your appreciation of this book will entirely depend on which side you’re on. An ancient soul in modern New Orleans, Ignatius is a hypochondriac, melancholic, overweight, clumsy philosopher with no social skills whatsoever. Do we pity him or admire him? Is he lovable or maddening? Or both?

I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.

2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Humbert Humbert, a monstrous, self-deluded paedophile and one of the wiliest characters in literature. Not only does he connive to form a relationship with his underage fantasy Lolita, but he connives with us, the reader to make us care, despite our disgust.

When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past.

3. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

I almost included Anna Karenina or Lily Bart in this list, but plumped instead for Madame Bovary, the plot of which is entirely driven by the moods and whims of the titular character. Unhappy with her life married to a provincial doctor, romantic, sentimental Emma Bovary embarks on a series of affairs that will be her undoing. Some will see a passionate, possibly depressed woman hemmed in by the mores of society, others a self-indulgent dreamer with a sense of entitlement. Either way, Emma is a tragic figure.

Besides, nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.

4. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

I’m getting a little concerned by the frequency with which this book is popping up in my TTT. Sure, there is a lot of plot in American Psycho, but told from the viewpoint of possible sociopathic serial killer, there is a distinct possibilty that we are experiencing a character’s mental breakdown and that it is all in his fevered imagination. Just a possibility mind you……

I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.

5. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn may well examine the question of emmigration in the 1950’s but it is slight on plot. Elis leaves her home for America, starts to settle in to her new life and then is forced back to Ireland for a funeral. What drives this understated, heartbreaking novel is the authentic detail of Elis’ life, the affections and doubts that shape her decisions. She is quite an ordinary character, but it is in the ordinary that we recognise ourselves.

As I settled down to sleep in that new bed in the dark city, I saw that it was too late now, too late for everything. I would not be given a second chance. In the hours when I woke, I have to tell you that this struck me almost with relief.

 

 

6. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Addie Bundren’s dying wish is to be buried ‘a hard day’s drive’ away in her family plot. Faulkner’s tour de force charts the family journey to fulfil her wishes by telling it from 15 different points of view, including the dead woman herself. Rich with vernacular and told in his stream of consciousness style, it’s not an easy read, but it is unforgettable.

Life was created in the valleys. It blew up into the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That’s why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down.

7. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

You don’t get much more character driven than a diary and Adrian Mole is my favourie fictional diarist. This socially awkward, misunderstood and self-proclaimed ‘intellectual’ teenager muses on class, family life, Margaret Thatcher and his unrequited love for Pandora Braithwaite, with a wit and wisdom beyond his years. Funny and touching, the entire Adrian Mole series is a gem.

I have realised I have never seen a dead body or a real female nipple. This is what comes of living in a cul-de-sac

8. Kill Your Friends by John Niven

Meet Stephen Stelfox, a British A&R music executive with a murderous bent. Stelfox is a man of unparalleled hideousness, chronically sexist and racist, he is fuelled by all the drink and drugs he can consume. He’s like a high octane cross between Simon Cowell and Patrick Bateman spouting hilarious lines that will make you cringe as much as make you laugh. His descent into murder and mayhem may not entirely come off, but as a scathing satire on the hypocrytical money-centric world of the music industry, this is spot on and lots of guilty fun. Watch out for the film adaptation coming out next year!

One thing you’ll learn when you’re in the business of selling utter shite to the Great British Public is that there’s really no bottom to where they’ll go. Shit food, shit TV, shit bands, shit films, shit houses. There is absolutely no fucking bottom with this stuff. The shittier you can make it – a bad photocopy of a bad photocopy of what was a shit idea in the first place – the more they’ll eat it up with a big fucking spoon, from dawn till dusk, from now until the end of time. It’s too good.

9. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites was the inaugural book in the 746 and is a historical novel set in 1830 that narrates the final year in the life of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Despite knowing the ending, Hannah Kent creates an ambiguous, perplexing and complex character that we come to know, to care for and finally, to hope for.

They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.

10. Emily’s Shoes by Dermot Bolger

I read and reread this beautiful novel quite obsessively in my late teens. Following the death of his parents, Michael McMahon spends a turbulent adolescence living with his glamorous Aunt Emily. He grows into a reclusive young librarian trying to understand his life, his sense of loss and his fixation with women’s shoes which is both his relief and his torment. It is a moving story of one man’s attempt to make sense of a childhood abruptly ended and come to terms with the real and imaginary corpses that haunt him now.

The same dream has haunted me for some years, the dream that I have killed someone

 

What do you think? Would you include these in your list or have I missed someone really obvious?

No: 746 Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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So, my epic challenge starts with a debut novel, one that was heralded with a seven-figure advance and subsequently short listed for the Guardian First Book Award.

Burial Rites is a historical novel set in 1830 that narrates the final year in the life of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir.  In 1829, three people in a remote farmstead are convicted of the murder of their employer, beaten and stabbed to death. Due to the lack of prisons on Iceland, one of the accused, Agnes, a servant woman in her thirties, is sent to work for a local family while she waits for a court in faraway Copenhagen to decide if and when her life should end.

Murder, remote communities and isolated landscapes are fertile material for a novel which, as Hannah Kent explains in her author’s note, aims ‘to supply a more ambiguous portrayal’ of Agnes, for whom the author clearly has deep and sympathetic knowledge.

Kent mines the final months of Agnes’ existence from historical records and creates a swirling, claustrophobic and dark tale that resurrects her heroine with skill and poignancy.

The prose is beautiful to read – spare, illuminating and lyrical – no word seems wasted, everything chosen with care, in order to immerse the reader not only in the fate of Agnes but in a world and a community of hardship and poverty, driven by the seasons and by the paranoia and bitterness that only lonely places can breed. The descriptions of the landscape are often painterly and are presented in words as crisp and clear as the northern setting itself.

As Agnes tells the story of the murders, the other characters of the novel and the reader come to know her, to care for her and finally, to hope for her. But we all know the ending. It is historical fact. And yet, when it comes, the execution is still shocking, written in sentences so striking as to demand re-reading and the final chapter is as powerful as anything I have read in many years.

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Burial Notes begs comparison to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, one of my favourite books, yet it does compare favourably although it has a colder, more precise tone.  But like Atwood, Hannah Kent has created a striking character in Agnes, an ambiguous and perplexing heroine who, even in death, cannot be pinned down. As she says early on in the book, ‘They will not see me. I will not be there’.

I look forward to her next book. Except, of course, I can’t buy it or read is for 20 years!

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