Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Executioner's Song: Judical Homicide

What's that song? The one they play at an execution? Norman Mailer knew. He captured its nuance and cadence with such fine detail in his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning, The Executioner's Song. The life and death of Gary Gilmore is laid out in prismatic prose that illuminates every shade of human dealing imaginable. It's such a laboured work, I'm in awe. It also reads as the last gulp of realism in American letters...after this, the postmodernism of writers like Thomas Pynchon & Dan DeLillo, as well as Raymond Carver's sparse minimalism, would eclipse Mailer.

In over 1,000 pages, Mailer recounts Gilmore's release from prison on parole in April 1976 to his execution nine months later on January 17, 1977 at age 36. Free for only three months before committing two cold-blooded murders, Gilmore eventually agreed with the court's verdict when he was sentenced - he called their bluff and wanted to be executed. When given a choice of method, he chose firing squad and categorically rejected an appeal or any attempt to pursue a stay. At the time, it was the first judicial homicide to take place in the U.S. since 1967.

Mailer called the book "a true life novel", not quite fiction or non-fiction. He also said, "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". That's not too surprising - it lacks the heated intimacy or interior monologues that might bring an author closer to his/her subject, but as a reader the panoramic scope of the narrative lured me in. Despite knowing the ultimate conclusion, I was hoping for that last minute phone call from the Supreme Court or some form of intervention to delay the fateful outcome. The style is plain, transparent reportage that creates a sense of objectivity as though the writer was some dispassionate scribe unaffected by the events he's relaying. Of course, there's no such thing...and Mailer was clearly against the judicial homicide that claimed Gilmore's life. That's the beauty of this book - it arranges the facts, like the furniture in a room, to create a desired outcome, in this case, sympathy for a cold-blooded murderer.

Mailer also captured the crass jingles of commerce that flocked around the execution - the National Enquirer, Geraldo Rivera types - and all the Hollywood scouts trying to capitalize on the event by turning it into a spectacle. Gilmore became an international media star. Here's the Adverts doing their 1977 hit, "Gary Gilmore's Eyes":

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