The Executioner’s Song.

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.


  1. “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.”

    Unconstitutional. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    Unconstitutional is not a synonym for ill-advised or incorrect or misguided (which is how you used it). It means that it violates the dictates of the United States constitution. Given that capital punishment is literally referenced in the Bill of Rights (Fifth Amendment requires a grand jury indictment for capital crimes and requires that a person cannot be deprived of their life without due process of law), you would be hard-pressed to make the case that it is per se unconstitutional. It can be unconstitutionally applied (trial/sentencing without due process of law) or unconstitutionally carried out (cruel and unusual punishment), but it is not unconstitutional across the board.

    • Unconstitutional is not a synonym for ill-advised or incorrect or misguided (which is how you used it).

      No, that’s not how I used it. The Eighth Amendment’s proscription on “cruel and unusual punishment” could be interpreted as a blanket ban on capital punishment, which two justices held there (a position with which I agree), or as a caution that the death penalty must only be used in the most egregious cases, where the punishment “fits” the crime.

      Capital punishment is referenced in 5A, but that does not make it per se constitutional. Those conditions are necessary but not sufficient.

  2. Right on with the constitutionality argument. I’ve done a lot of anti-CP legal work, and I’d be careful about the “not a deterrent” statement–the evidence is pretty mixed. Whatever the answer is, it’s impossible to run a constitutionally acceptable system of capital punishment, and it should be abolished.

    • That was the hardest part of the whole review to phrase, because the evidence is mixed. There are a couple of studies post-moratorium, pre-Freakonomics that seem to show an inverse correlation between the death penalty and the homicide rate, but they didn’t factor out general declines in violent crimes that took place anyway, possibly as the result of Roe v. Wade. But I think it’s fair to say that there is no conclusive or strongly persuasive evidence of a deterrent effect, which I would consider necessary but not sufficient to even consider capital punishment as an option.

  3. ritchie vanian

    I like your reference that “Geraldo Rivera was apparently a soulless hack at the time” — what’s changed?

    Also, the most positive contribution Gilmore made was to be the subject of the great Adverts song : “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”.

    ps- That was a cheap shot at Nicole Baker: ” (stunningly beautiful (you can judge this for yourself, but I don’t see it)” ).

    • How is saying that I don’t think she’s “stunningly beautiful” a cheap shot? The book abounds with references to her looks, but when I saw pictures of her, I was surprised at how not-stunningly-beautiful I thought she was. It’s not like I called her homely.

  4. I’m not certain this relates to the constitutionality of the death penalty, but it’s both irrevocable and no less subject to errors in human judgement than other sentences. Even if it’s not unconstitutional, it’s so flawed that it shouldn’t ever be employed.

  5. Curiously, I agree with you wholeheartedly on the death penalty in the abstract… and yet feel conflicted on honoring Gilmore’s wish to die. As much as I oppose the death penalty, I also believe strongly in the right to die. Now, the right to die does not mean the right to the state being party to it. But there is something odd, to me at least, about those who went to fight his case against his wishes. It seems to deny him agency, something the court was already dead set to do anyway. It’s weird.

    • I don’t see how we could ever be certain that such a decision, made by a condemned inmate, was made in sound mind and without coercion. There are many so-called “voluntary” executions, by inmates who waived some or all rights to appeal, but how could we ever prove these decisions were truly voluntary?

  6. Gilmore’s younger brother, a writer for Rolling Stone, wrote a pretty terrific book about their family:

  7. Haven’t read the book, but as someone who was born and raised in the Mormon religion and fortunately was able to transition out as an adult, it sounds like I share the author’s opinion of the Mormon church.

  8. Doug Thompson

    I had the great privelege to work and live in Singapore. The most peaceful and prosperous society on Earth. A large reason for this is effective and efficient use of capital punishment for drug crime and homicide. Western society slides into increasing depravity with rotating door approach to crime. Effective use of the noose is one key to the great prosperity of that wonderful society.

    • Singapore is a repressive one-party state. It ranks in the bottom quintile of world nations for press freedom, below Russia, Myanmar, and Ethiopia, effectively tied with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Homosexuality is banned. The government can imprison people without trial indefinitely; one famous victim of this spent twenty-three years in detention under the Internal Security Act. They cane and torture prisoners, and have not signed the UN Convention Against Torture. This is not a “wonderful society.” It sounds like hell.

  9. And Singapore police can order you to take a drug test at their whim, with no warrant or cause; and with major penalties if you fail.
    I finally read piece of literature that Keith hasn’t (yet): Caine Mutiny.

  10. Doug Thompson

    obviously you have not lived in Singapore or south asia for that matter. By all empirical measurements Singapore a free and just society. education free and top quality. excellent social support system for disabled, elderly and other special needs.. employs over 3 million from the poorest parts of the world (migrant workers in in a fair and equitable manner). Co-exist peacefully with a very large muslim population compare murder rate in singapore to your free “Washington” where criminals rule the night. my children walked the street of Singapore in working class neighbourhood all time of night and day with no concern. you are wealthy white suburbanite who generally hides from reality in exclusive suburban neighbourhoods . have no right to comment on singapore without having lived in that most beautifull society.

    • obviously you have not lived in Singapore or south asia for that matter.

      That’s a bad fallacy.

      By all empirical measurements Singapore a free and just society.

      Except I just gave several, like the Press Freedom Index, that say it’s not. Your statement, that “all” measurements, show this has been disproven and you shall not claim this again.

      migrant workers in in a fair and equitable manner

      By segregating and interning them under heavy surveillance. Neither fair nor equitable.

      you are wealthy white suburbanite

      Well, that’s not true. I am white, but not wealthy, and I live in a county that’s about 23% African-American, maybe five miles from the Wilmington city line.

      who generally hides from reality in exclusive suburban neighbourhoods

      Now you’ve just crossed the line into being a total idiot. I was in Santo Domingo in October and San Juan last week. I have been to Compton (and got barbecue there!) several times and all over NYC on foot. Plus there is nothing exclusive about my neighborhood at all: It’s not gated, it’s not terribly expensive, and we have a diverse population. So please stop making shit up about me.

      have no right to comment on singapore without having lived in that most beautifull society.

      Yeah, I do have that right, because I live in the United States, where we have actual freedom of speech. If we were in Singapore, and I were this critical of the government, I could be placed in detention without charges for an indefinite period of time, merely for writing subversive content. Fortunately, I don’t live in Singapore. I live in a country that’s actually free.

    • And I’ve deleted Doug’s latest comment, which was more libel mixed with personal insults.

  11. Doug Thompson

    not surprised. you get your social liberation theology from Wodehouse.

    • No. Your obsession with my enjoyment of Wodehouse as pleasure reading ignores that I’ve read roughly 1,050 books by other authors, including wa Thiongo, Achebe, Adichie, Soyinka, Dangarembga, García Marquez … except that none of this is remotely relevant to your initial claims that Singapore is free, which, once debunked, you dropped to attack me personally. If you intend to continue these personal attacks, you are not welcome to participate in these discussions.

  12. Doug Thompson

    ok. will desist on that issue. i personally can not stand the Wodehouse genre but I will let that go. Compare the murder and violent crime rates in sing to the united states or even western europe for that matter (almost two orders of magnitude with US). the country is not perfect but its transformation into an peacefull, prosperous and largely benevolent society is awe inspiring. I worked with Indian, Filipino, Malay, Indonesian nationals – who were generally treated well (although taken advanatage of by hiring agencies). But far far far better than your free america treats its mexican migrant workers. But I can assure you that ‘Truly Hard on Crime Mentality’ is integral to the social historical fabric of that nation state. on many issues that you would appreciate – drunk driving, government and corporate corruption etc. they dont fool around on these issues and everybody that lives in the country is fully aware. leave your wallet in a sing taxi and i give 85% chance you would recieve it back. i did – and all cabbe asked me was to pay his fare to bring it over to my condo.

    • Yes, Singapore has lower crime rates than the U.S. Our gun laws here are a joke, and massive economic disparities coupled with limited educational and economic opportunities in disadvantaged areas also contribute. So does reducing access to abortion. But I’ve never defended the U.S. as a complete entity: Like most countries, it has strong points and weak ones. I might prefer living somewhere else, like New Zealand (very safe and very free) or Switzerland (same, just cold) or Italy (well, the food is good). But there are few places where I could go where I would improve on the entire basket of variables about which I care – including freedom of expression and having a government bound by basic principles like habeus corpus. Singapore, which has been ruled by one party for 50 years and has seen that party sue opposition politicians into bankruptcy, does not: The safety of some residents comes at the price of the freedom of many others. Singapore can detain you without charges indefinitely. It applies the death sentence for nonviolent crimes. It tolerates virtually no political dissent and no opposition press.

      This may be the type of society you seek, but to me, it sounds dystopian. I’ll take more civil liberties even if it means that, yes, I might run into the not-infrequent drug addict on the streets of Wilmington or Philly.

  13. Doug Thompson

    one final note. note how singapore is surrounded by the second largest concentration of muslims in the world (Pakistan is largest i think). surrounding Malaysia and indonesia are largely Muslim as is Southern Philippines. Yet sing is not a hotbed of hostility and aggression 9generally peacefull coexistence). Rule of law is Rule law however – this is central to Sing culture. and all who enter the country know and recognize it. no celebrity justice, no justice for the wealthy. and I assur you that i did not live in central banking district but indstrial end of island – Jurong – where the majority of poorer foreign nationalsalso lived. I rarely saw an armed policeman – because it just was not necessary.