The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer
In reading this more than 1000 page book, the reader is struck by fundamental questions about the work, such as, are the people this book is about all that interesting, could the time spent reading about this book be better spent in other ways, and is the author the right person to write this particular book. The answers to those questions from this reader are no, yes, and no. When the author, at the close of the work, talks about how this book was distilled from about fifteen thousand pages of transcript information, this reader ponders why more distillation was not done, because the interest level of convicted murderer and career con Gary Gilmore, whose death in Utah in 1976 was the first execution in the United States for some years and prompted the return of the death penalty to the United States. Like many people, I happen to believe that the death penalty is not used way often enough, but this book strives to present its large cast of very uninteresting characters based on their own belief systems, and so fair time is given to anti-death penalty activists, including people from the NAACP who (correctly) figured that a return to the death penalty would mean the execution of criminals from the black community. Admittedly, the context of the death penalty is itself an interesting one, but this book really misses the mark because it focuses its attention on people who, ranging from the convicted murderer himself to judges and journalists and family members and lawyers and activists just are not compelling or interesting people whose life stories and mundane behavior are all that worth reading about.
This book is about 1050 pages long, and it is divided into two books, each of which have seven parts. The first book is called Western Voices, and it has chapters about Gary, a career criminal (1), as well as his main girl Nicole (2), who herself has some kind of tragic life story involving child abuse and frequent relationship drama, as well as Gary and Nicole (3), The Gas Station and the Motel (4) where the murders ended up taking place, the aftermath of those murders (5), the trial that led to a conviction for double murder in the first degree (6), and the beginning of Gary’s time on death row (7). The second part of the book is more tedious than the first, which is tedious enough, discussing various appeals (1), squabbles among journalists and others for exclusive rights of the murderer’s story (2), his hunger strike (3), and the machinations involving what happened in winter (4), as well as the pressures (5), last-minute appeals and the execution itself (6), and the aftermath of the execution for various people (7). The book includes interviews copied nearly verbatim as well as personal letters, the usual fictional imagining of what is inside the mind of people, sentences which are extremely short and basic in structure, and a lot of attention paid to question of sex among the criminal class. This clearly interests the author more than the reader.
This book is a prime example of the mistake it can be for writers to get caught up in their own hype and believe that what they are writing is more interesting than it is. This book had the makings of an interesting and worthwhile book of about 200 or 300 pages which discussed the robbery and murder of two men, some of the life history of the murderer and the victims, and the trial and its many appeals. This book is hundreds of pages longer than any interest that its subject matter holds, to the point where detailed discussion takes place about last-minute hearings that are quickly decided, as well as the political infighting between Utah’s local Mormon-dominated community as well as a federal judge whose sloppiness leads his decisions to be frequently overturned on appeal. The author seems to think it necessary that every person in this sprawling and bloated mess needs to have their life story introduced when they are, and that only makes this book more tedious and lengthy than it already is. It is as if the author had so much that he found interesting in his research that he wanted to convey to the reader that he forgot to ask the question of whether the material itself was interesting enough to the reader to justify spending space on it. Hopefully the author didn’t get paid by the word for this mess.