on 9 August 2008
This jaw-dropping book recieves less than flattering reviews because for some reason people want to be spoon-fed "answers" all the time to people like Gary Gilmore. What Mailer delivers instead is a truly outstanding feat of journalism, far surpassing any fiction, by painstakingly building Gilmores story from thousands of discrete, taut, unsentimental blocks of prose - allowing us to cement them together and giving us room to think for ourselves. Readers expecting Mailer to provide plot, climax, titillation, shocking details or answers as to "why" will rightly be bored, and have missed the point. Mailers neutral measured prose provides just the right angle of entry into a life that was devoid of plot and reason, just action and reaction. It is a clear white light cutting through the interests whose story he tells so skilfully in this book. Yes the length does not help, and you should do yourself a big favour take it on holiday and read it in a long hard week. But do it with an open mind and you will be infinitely rewarded... and glad you did. Unique, and to be treasured.
Once you've read this, grab more gems of late 20th c. American journalism - start with Hunter S Thompsons "The Great Shark Hunt" and Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test".
on 27 November 2003
Mailer's tour de force. This monster book (+1000 pages long)tells the true story of an intelligent convict on parole in 1976, falling into his bad ways, and meets destiny calmly.
Mailer tells the story as an old Greek bard - in the end, it seems the only way things could have happened. Mailer gets into the skin of most people involved or related, describes their feelings (perfectly understable), measures the impact on America (wow! a convicted killer demands a right to die, overruling his own defence, apparently supporting the idea behind the penal code etc).
The other main storyline is oddly a love affair (also factual, not fictional) between the convicted and a girl. It is essetially a story of two social drop outs, two drifters but nevertheless really 'gelling' to use a modern term.
Doesn't bore for one bit. Good story on the madness of the US criminal system, the criminals, their families, their victims the press. In a way it shows that people in the end care (mainly about their own interests) and at the same time be totally careless, cyanical. Makes you think about society.
Of course, Mailer being Mailer, a lot of sex, drugs and violence are on the pages, but do not dominate the story.
The whole thing just takes you by the hand & after the 1000-odd pages, a big sigh & many thoughts pass.
on 23 February 2008
`The Executioner's Song` was one of two non-fiction works, along with `Armies of the Night`, that won Norman Mailer the Pulitzer Prize. Is it an archetypally weighty tome for an author who seemed to pride himself on tacking the big subjects of his era with bawdy gusto. It concerns itself with the life and execution of career criminal and, finally, murderer Gary Gilmore, who was one of the first death row convicts to be exectuted in the US for many years. The case was made more peculiar for Gilmore's willingness to accept his death sentence and the subsequent legal battles between vested interest groups ushered in an unprecedented media sensation.
`The Executioner's Song` is evidently constructed from multiple interviews with associates of Gilmore's, from his friends and family to those involved in both sides of the legal disputes surrounding his death by firing squad. Ultimately, what we read is a heavily culled factual account of the Gilmore sourced from these interviews and transferred from the first person to the third. Therefore what is admirable about this work is thoroughness and balance of its research, not any particular display of writing from the author. In fact, the `Voices' that comprise the two distinct parts of the novel - ostensibly depicting Gilmore's life immediately before the murders and the subsequent trial - wholly retain the vernacular and idioms of the original speakers. The end result is thus a mosaic of subjectivised accounts pieced together by an astute and no doubt painstaking editing process.
Nevertheless, it would be fair to suggest that `The Executioner's Song`, however interesting, does not warrant the 1000 page-treatment given here. It is easy to lose track of who's who among the enormous cast of names connected to Gilmore, especially the more peripheral `characters'. Given the nature of the book, no great effort is made to clarify some of the legal processes, which are taken from first person accounts and not often comprehensible to the layman. Moreover, not all of what is included could be honestly described as necessary or interesting, and a little further whittling down might have tightened this up a bit. I'm ashamed to say it took me almost two months to slog through this, my interest hitting peaks and troughs.
Certainly as a historical document - and as a legal reference-point - `The Executioner's Song` is comprehensive. But history has been unkind to the Gilmore story; in retrospect one wonders why anyone would be compelled to create such a tome for such a relatively minor event. If The Executioner's Song reminds us how brightly the oxygen of publicity can burn, it also shows how little remains when the media loses interest.
A huge (1000+ page) work on the final months in the life of Gary Gilmore, this opens with his release from many years in prison to stay with relatives in Utah. All too soon their well-meaning efforts to rehabilitate him seem doomed to failure, especially as he takes up with the damaged Nicole... I found the first part of the book utterly compelling - his home life, and ultimately the two terrible and pointless murders that he carries out.
The second half, for me, was way too long. The characters who take centre stage now are largely lawyers and newspaper reporters, for whom Gilmore's death penalty represents a chance to get rich:
'We're embarrassed to tell you this, but the contract is only effective if the execution is carried out.'
The whole media circus; the appeals as various lawyers and human rights groups fight for Gilmore's life (against his will as he demands to die rather than spend his life in jail) seemed to go on excessively.
Although we get to know most of the characters- including, briefly, an account of the lives of the victims - Gary - despite his letters and the pages of conversation transcribed - really remains an enigma. Intelligent, besotted, a believer in karma...yet a double killer. Was it the prolixin - a drug forcibly administered on his previous time in jail? Was there something in his childhood?
The end is deeply sad, exacerbated by the last minute efforts to get a stay of execution, and Gilmore's uncertainty till the very end as to whether he would die.
This is a tour de force based on interviews with over a hundred people: Mailer observes that the collected transcripts would approach fifteen thousand pages.
Gary Gilmore was a habitual offender from a young age, by the time he was 36 he had spent over half of his short life in institutions from Juvenile hall to state prisons. At the age of 35 he was released after a twelve year sentence for armed robbery, into the care of his family, who got him a job and a place to stay, however he never settled or made any real effort to fit into suburban life or the nine to five routine of everyday folk. Soon in trouble again he managed to convince his parole officer it was not his fault and kept his freedom. Soon he was buying and carrying guns, openly stealing whatever he wanted from local stores, drinking heavily, rarely working, forever borrowing money, causing fights with locals and constantly getting himself into trouble. In fact trouble was Gary’s middle name and had been since a very young age. When he meets Nicole, a 17 year old twice divorcee with two young children, his life becomes an even bigger mess. Their relationship, always volatile, over time becomes a tinder box just awaiting a spark. His constant jealousy, fueled in the main by her behavior with other men, caused constant friction and often nasty violence. They appear however to have been kindred spirits each eventually accepting the other for what they obviously were, he a convicted violent criminal and she a promiscuous wastrel. However their futures could have been so different, both were uneducated, but it’s quite clear that both were intelligent. With some better decisions earlier in life and perhaps more support when young, both could have made there way in the world. Gilmore was quite an artist with some talent and Nicole’s letters show a fairly keen mind.
When he needs a few hundred Dollars to put a deposit down on a truck he commits double murder in as many nights. Two lives wiped out for no good reason. Both victims had handed over their money and were cooperating with him fully. His haul was about $300. Was he mad or just bad!
The almost unbelievable story of what happened after his capture and conviction for first degree murder is covered in almost forensic detail. The unstoppable media circus that the American Legal system became, always reacting to outside events and political pressure, rather than controlling them is very sad indeed. This should have been a dignified and efficient programme of justice rather than the embarrassing farce it became. Whatever your views on Capital punishment this is not America’s finest hour. Everyone and anyone with an opinion seemed willing and able to get their voice heard, and it’s quite clear that Mr Gilmore, in the end, became little more than a symbol for whoever had an axe to grind. Gilmore however thought he held all the cards, thought he had everyone hanging on his every word, thought he was making the agenda, but it was an illusion. He was being used to sell newspapers and keep up the TV ratings. By attempting to manipulate the media he became part of the very establishment he had spent so much time and effort trying to corrupt. I wonder if this ever crossed his mind. Probably not.
Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize winning “non fiction novel” is an astonishing feat of journalistic investigation fused with literary inventiveness. Gary and Nicole, along with his and her extended families, are exquisitely recreated on the page. The sadness of watching loved ones begin to slowly destroy themselves is almost palpable when reading. The characters are always there, they never feel lost in what is a huge book of over 1000 pages. The sense of things getting out of control is nicely handled and I can see why it won the ultimate literary prize there is.
However it’s not all plain sailing, you can’t criticize the writing, the research or the sheer amount of talent required to create a book of this quality, however the last third of the book, concerning itself with the legal aspects of the case, rather than the human element, is less successful. If you have stamina you will be rewarded because this is one of the best true crime books ever written, on a par with In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter.
on 15 June 1999
The executioners song is a compelling tale of one mans desire to end his own life and change the lives of many more forever.
A convicted murderer who had spent many years behind bars tasted freedom, vices and love. Throws them away along with the lives of his family and lover. He continues to control and dominate his lover to the point of her ending her life. He expresses an enormous desire to receive his just reward for killing innocent men and escape forever his torment of prison.
The story doesn't go into why he spent many years in prison prior to being released on parole. This element of his life may have had some impact as to why he did what he did later. The ardous battle with his family and lawyers for him to escape from his prison life ahead of him is compelling. The impact that his actions had on America is unbelievable. His words of just do it explain his casual approach to murder and death but did he do it for attention? The lives of so many have been affected and those close to him are the only ones who can say.
I have read this masterpiece over the last nine years and each time understand a little more. Would his suicide have affected the rest of America as his execution? Control freak or coward? More questions will be raised, reading may supply the answer.
Winner of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize, The Executioner's Song scrutinizes the life and death of Gary Gilmore, arrested and tried for the 1976 killings of two innocent men in Provo, Utah, during petty burglaries which netted him less than $250. Author Norman Mailer bases his novel on the one hundred interviews and hundreds of phone conversations he conducted with people involved in Gilmore's life, trial, and execution. He also examined all available police documents and court transcripts, and made many trips to Utah and Oregon to talk with witnesses and people who knew Gilmore,
Having had no contact with Gary Gilmore himself, Mailer maintains a reporter's distance, ultimately portraying Gilmore as a loser who got his "education" in the prison system in which he spent half his life, and turning him into a symbol of the sociopath for whom society has found no answer except the death penalty. The novel divides naturally into several sections: the gruesome crimes themselves, including Gilmore's mindset at the time, his background, and the effect of the crimes on his family and friends; the pre-trial maneuvering and the trial itself; the conviction and post-conviction appeals; and Gilmore's execution and its aftermath.
Gilmore is not presented sympathetically, though Mailer goes to great lengths to portray him accurately. Gilmore's unusually high IQ, his poetic letters to his girlfriend Nicole, and his admission of guilt and desire to pay for his crimes with his own death create a unique picture of someone who had both intelligence and a kind of honor. But neither Gilmore nor the psychologists could ever explain why he did what he did. One moment Gilmore says, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing," and another moment he says, "I've always had a choice."
Mailer takes the long view throughout the novel, which ultimately becomes an extraordinary study of a man facing justice and the extraordinary steps the judicial system takes to see that true justice is served--the agonies endured by friends, the sleepless nights of attorneys and judges, the soul-searching of those required to carry out the sentence, many of them Mormons who do not support the death penalty, and the frustration of Gilmore, who wants death and fears that he will be reprieved. A brilliant and complete study of the American way of life and those, like Gilmore, who cannot live within it, the novel is still excruciatingly long. The last half of the book, with the minutiae of the legal maneuvering, the post-trial activities, and the appeals could have been cut in half without sacrificing depth or truth. Mary Whipple
on 27 January 1998
In the beginning, you wonder "why so much detailed character development"? Later, you understand why. As you turn each page, you grow to truly understand the essance of each character's being. You start to relate. You find yourself able to accept some of the awful acts of Gary Gilmore and others in the novel, simply because you understand them.
This is a great book to take on a vacation, where you need something to keep you wrapped up for a week or so. My only complaint about the book is that is started to drag at the end. I think the last section could have been condensed and still had the same impact.
on 14 September 2015
The foreword to this book suggests that it is the greatest true story ever to be put to paper, that it is essential reading and will be a pivotal moment in ones life. It isn't, and it doesn't come anywhere near such superlatives.There seems to be an element of "the emperor's new clothes' in such praise, as though Mailer is so skilled that he is above negative criticism. With some exceptions, the book is bland and over long, with the first 30% being given over to a drab reiteration of Gilmore's life up to the point of the murders.Mailer includes biographies for quite a number of the characters that form part of Gilmore's life, which provide much of the unnecessary padding that makes this book so long and tedious.I don't need to know the childhood and history of the prosecutor or the defenders or the psychologists or the police officers. I don't need to read every single repetitive letter that Gilmore sent to his girlfriend, but the book is written in a style where every mundane action is described without considering the potential for exhausting the reader. The book, however, can't be called 'rubbish' or 'trivial' as it does deal with the death of two innocent people and the aftermath their deaths, but it could have been written in a far more efficient style. There are, of course, comparisons to Capote's In Cold Blood, but these comparisons should be limited to the subject matter, not the style. In Cold Blood is written in a far more engaging style and does not include burdensome and unnecessary chapters. In summary, my opinion of Executioners Song is that Mailer has opted for bland quantity, rather than essential quality.
Mailer really was at the height of his powers when he wrote this 'factual novel' about hardened criminal Gary Gilmore and how, during his short-lived release from prison, he robbed and murdered two men at gun point. What followed was Gilmore's arrest and the subsequent media furore when he insisted he be executed for the crimes. At a time when no convicted criminal had been executed in the US for ten years the storm that surrounded this case was of massive proporitions and Gilmore's subsequent execution by firing squad sent shockwaves throughought the nation and, indeed, the wider world.
So, in a nutshell, that is what the book is about. A true account of a criminal caught up in the cogs of the legal system. However, Mailer takes his time relishing over the saga, over 1000 pages all told. However, rather than relying on high-falutin writing or concentrating on forensic detail, he writes in a steady, almost conversational prose that has a charming simplicity to it. For example, he often ends a sentence with the intimate words 'you know?'
However, Mailer was never a man to hide his light under a bushel and his startlingly powerful insights are still present, only in this book they are wrapped and delivered in the guise of plain, unadorned writing. The impact of his searing insights are all the more powerful for this.
I have read a lot of true crime books over the years, 'In Cold Blood', 'The Gates of Janus' amongst many others and this book stands tall and proud among these exemplars.
The Executioner's Song contains many quaint turns of phrase and when read now, through the weight of years, it also reads as a time capsule that has preserved a detailed view of the psyche of the typical US citizen living in the late 1970's. This cranks the interest up even more.
In short, this book is utterly compelling, heart stopping, beautifully conceived and clearly a labour of love for the author.
It really is a classic of the highest order that deserves your attention, even though it demands you keep interest over 100 plus pages.