Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1980, is the longest work to take home that award, a strange historical footnote in the prize’s history because it’s almost certainly not a work of fiction. Mailer, who had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for Armies of the Night, had access to an unbelievable depth and breadth of source material on Gary Gilmore, the very real subject of The Executioner’s Song, and just about everyone else involved in his life, crimes, imprisonment, and eventual execution, producing a work that moves as quickly as any thousand-page book I’ve ever read*. It would have been more than enough for Mailer, using the recordings and notes compiled by his collaborator Lawrence Schiller, to produce a work of great academic scholarship by providing all of this detail on Gilmore’s life and ultimate desire to rush from sentencing to the firing squad. Instead, Mailer manages the nearly impossible task of humanizing Gilmore without making him the least bit sympathetic, while populating his world with countless well-described, three-dimensional characters, into whose private struggles we gain access thanks to their candor with Schiller and to Mailer’s ability to turn their thoughts into richly developed portraits.
* N of 6.
Gary Gilmore was a lifelong ne’er-do-well who had spent much of his childhood in reform school, then ended up in jail, and just a few months after he was paroled at age 36 after serving about four years of a term for armed robbery he committed while on conditional release, he killed two service workers in the course of two separate armed robberies, with both murders taking place after he’d already obtained the money. The Supreme Court had suspended the use of the death penalty across the United States in 1972 after a 5-4 ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which held, among other things, that sentences of death were applied inconsistently based on the races of the defendants – black defendants were much more likely to be sentenced to die than whites, which three of the five justices ruling for the plaintiff held to be a violation of the Eighth (cruel and unusual punishment) and Fourteenth (equal protection of the laws) Amendments to the Constitution.
(Two other justices held that the death penalty was per se unconstitutional, which I think should be blindingly obvious but, sadly, is not. The death penalty is not a deterrent to capital crime, and is not cost-effective, which means its use is merely a case of the government providing vengeance for the victims’ families.)
Shortly before Gilmore committed the two murders, the Supreme Court ended the suspension of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, as long as the trial in question contained two separate phases for the determination of guilt and for sentencing. Gilmore’s case was egregious and his lawyers, recognizing that they had no defense (there was a witness in one of the cases who saw Gilmore leaving the scene with the gun in his hand), merely hoped to get him life imprisonment. However, Gilmore not only accepted the death penalty but attempted to waive all appeals, asking the court to carry out the sentence as quickly as possible – within 60 days, as required by the Utah statute at the time (which, by the way, did not include a mandatory appeal of any death sentence, because Utah). That stance turned Gilmore into a national celebrity, drew in the ACLU to give Gilmore a defense he didn’t want, and resulted in some darkly comic scenes of legal wrangling that went on right up until a few minutes before Gilmore was executed in January, 1977, the first person to be put to death for his crimes in the United States in nearly ten years.
Although Mailer’s name is on the book’s spine as the author, Schiller, a filmmaker and screenwriter, gathered all of the source material. Several journalists descended on Utah after Gilmore’s sentencing and pronouncement that he wished to die in search of a story; Schiller came out victorious, using various schemes and intermediaries to gain hours of recorded dialogue with Gilmore, Q&As that Gilmore filled out, and interviews with dozens of people relevant to the case, including the widows of the two victims and the girlfriend whose relationship with Gary was, he alleged, the reason he snapped and went out in search of someone to kill. (It’s a facile explanation not supported at all by everything Mailer and Schiller give us in the book.)
Gilmore himself was a complex character, which Schiller realized, driving him to keep attacking Gilmore with questions – asked by his intermediaries, Gilmore’s attorneys – designed to provoke more revealing responses about his childhood. Schiller was clearly looking for something, like a history of abuse or repressed sexual urges, that would explain the killer’s psychopathic behavior, including his controlling, manipulative hold on that girlfriend, 19-year-old Nicole Baker, herself a badly damaged child with a history of drug use and sexual victimhood. But Gilmore was in no way sympathetic, and Mailer doesn’t try to make him so; if you feel anything on Gilmore’s side of the battle over his sentence, it will be for his family members, including his invalid mother, and some of the people who poured their emotions into stopping a punishment that they believed to be morally wrong, only to lose thanks in part to a last-minute flight from Utah to Denver to overturn a judge’s stay. Indeed, the rush to kill Gary Gilmore does nothing to rehabilitate his image, but paints Utah in particular as a state so driven by bloodlust that it comes across as a sort of nightmare totalitarian society. (Mailer also seems to have little use for the domination of the state’s government, including its courts, by Mormons, other than Judge W.W. Ritter, who twice ordered stays to Gilmore’s execution; the book includes Gilmore’s accurate paraphrase of the speech given by Brigham Young where the preacher and openly racist Governor of the Utah Territory said that it would be right and just if he, finding one of his wives in the act of committing adultery with another man, ran them both through the breast with a knife, sending them to the afterlife where their sins would be cleansed. I don’t think you include that passage unless you want the reader to know just where you stand on the Mormon church.)
The first half of the book proceeds like a disaster unfolding in slow motion; we begin with Gilmore’s parole, and get an almost daily look into his struggle to assimilate himself into normal life outside of prison, especially in relations with women. When he meets Nicole Baker, who comes across as a space cadet throughout the book and is always described as stunningly beautiful (you can judge this for yourself, but I don’t see it), he finally gets the reliable outlet for his sexual desires – including disturbing threesomes with an underage friend of Nicole’s – but enters into a relationship toxic in both directions. Nicole, pressured by family members concerned about Gilmore’s manipulative tendencies and violent temper, breaks it off with Gilmore, after which he commits the two murders that ultimately send him to jail.
The second half diverages from your standard true-crime, non-fiction novel, however, by making the chase for Gilmore’s story the actual story. Schiller enters the pages and never lets go of them, while we also get a cast of lawyers with conflicting interests, other journalists, Hollywood producers seeking film rights, and enough clowns to fill a clown Escalade. The media takes a special beating in the book, largely well-deserved. Geraldo Rivera was apparently a soulless hack at the time, trying to do a live TV interview with Gilmore’s cousin Brenda right after the execution while she was still in the hospital recovering from major surgery. (He actually asked to do the interview in the hospital room itself.) Newsweek cited a couple of verses of poetry that Gilmore wrote, failing to recognize that the verses were from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant.” Reporters and photographers throw all ethics out the window to get images of Gilmore or Nicole, or a quote from anyone in the case, even barging into people’s houses without permission. While I’m sure such things still happen today, the frequency of such events in this book – with no apparent repercussions – is nauseating.
Mailer and Schiller even manage to humanize the many lawyers involved in the case, those seeking to uphold the death sentence and those trying to at least delay it and push through what we would, today, consider a standard process of appeals. Gilmore became a peculiar folk hero and a target for letters from women and girls across the country (gah) because of what was perceived as his stoic acceptance of a just penalty, but as the first execution after nearly a decade-long gap, the last four years under a Supreme Court moratorium, Gilmore’s trial and execution had ramifications for many capital cases to follow. He may have been okay with the sentence handed out to him – and his lack of emotional response to it would seem to support Schiller’s belief that Gilmore had some sort of mental infirmity, like dissociation – but groups like the ACLU needed to fight for his rights to try to establish rights for future defendants.
I don’t see how anyone could read this book and avoid at least feeling a tug toward the side of the debate that opposes capital punishment. It is a brutal sentence, and an expensive, wasteful process to adjudicate it and carry it out. It is also increasingly seen in the developed world as barbarous. Only one other country in the entire Western Hemisphere actively uses the death penalty, and that one, St. Kitts and Nevis, has executed one person in the last 17 years. The only country in Europe that has the death penalty at all is Belarus, ruled by a repressive dictator and serial human-rights violator. Japan still has the death penalty and executed one person in 2015. The United States has more in common with countries like Iran, China, or Saudi Arabia than with any western democracies when it comes to capital punishment. So while the death penalty is decreasing in usage in other nations to which we might compare ourselves, it has little or no deterrent effect on violent crime, and it’s damn expensive to put into practice, Mailer, without appearing to take a side, shows the real human cost of a death sentence by focusing on all of the people besides Gilmore who were hurt by his execution. And while Gilmore destroyed many lives – the two men he murdered, their wives, the three infants left without fathers – killing Gilmore did not restore what he took away. (Both widows cooperated with Mailer and Schiller in providing their stories with their late husbands, acts of significant grace given the amount of shock and grief they must have been suffering.)
Apropos of nothing else, I caught two quotes in the book with some connection to baseball. Gilmore’s first comment or question to a reporter after he was first sentenced to death was, “Who the hell won the World Series?” (That was the Reds, four games to none.) And both Gilmore and his cellmate after his final conviction, the enigmatic Gibbs, had “used the same drug, Ritalin, a rare type of speed not in common use” as their first experience with illicit substances. Yes, Ritalin and Adderall have valid pharmaceutical uses in the treatment of ADHD, but there are far more MLB players with exemptions to take these drugs – Adderall is a combination of two amphetamine salts; Ritalin is not technically “speed” but is also a CNS stimulant and dopamine reuptake inhibitor like amphetamines – than you’d expect from a random sample of men in that age range. And the evidence that these stimulants are performance enhancers, while still anecdotal, is strong.
I read the book via the Kindle app on my iPad – it’s also available via Apple’s iBooks – since, at nearly 1100 pages, it seemed like it would be a bit much to tote around. It was also on sale for $2 on Christmas Day on amazon, along with the book I’m reading now, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny.