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