The Executioner's Song | Critical Essay by Robert Merrill

This literature criticism consists of approximately 27 pages of analysis & critique of The Executioner's Song.
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Critical Essay by Robert Merrill

SOURCE: "Mailer's Sad Comedy: The Executioner's Song," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 129-48.

In the following essay, Merrill reconsiders the critical reception of The Executioner's Song through analysis of Mailer's presentation and major themes in the novel. According to Merrill, Mailer's treatment of social injustice and tragedy evokes compassion for all characters involved.

This is an absolutely astonishing book.

                                    —Joan Didion

The time is right, I think, to reconsider The Executioner's Song (1979), Norman Mailer's famous "true life novel" (the book's oxymoronic subtitle). Though the work received an extremely favorable reception from reviewers (more favorable than any of Mailer's books save The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, and, curiously enough, Existential Errands), The Executioner's Song remains an enigma in the history of Mailer's critical reputation. Since 1979 most essays on the book have been friendly, but they have all dealt with limited topics—Mailer's presence or nonpresence within the text, Gary Gilmore's "character," the validity of Mailer's claim to have written a true life novel. It almost seems as if the book's sheer size has discouraged even its advocates from addressing such basic issues as the work's overall structure and informing themes. The questions that remain are fundamental. How should we assess the relationship between books 1 and 2, almost equally long but often thought to be of radically unequal narrative interest (the first book surpassing the second)? What are we to make of the final five hundred pages in which Mailer focuses on the intense legal and media activity that marked Gilmore's last three months? Perhaps most crucial, what are we to think of Gilmore? Is he a Maileresque hero, "fighting the whole liberal establishment for the right to choose his own death and expiation," as Robert Begiebing argues? Or is he no more than a violent "punk," as many readers no doubt suppose? Finally, what are we to make of Mailer's claim that his subject is "American Virtue," as he once considered titling the book? This claim should lead us to reconsider Mailer's thematic intentions in general, intentions all too often down-played because Mailer is so conspicuously "absent" from this huge book. Such a review should allow us to see that The Executioner's Song is Mailer's most ambitious attempt to "explain" America, a fundamental purpose in all his books but especially the works of nonfiction that he published in the 1970s.

I shall assume that the generic question is less crucial here than in many of Mailer's earlier works, for I think Mailer has written precisely the kind of book he set out to write: a "novel" in which everything happens to be "true" (i.e., exactly as reported by the one hundred witnesses from whose point of view the story is told). The principal critical questions should be how this massive set of experiences is organized and what the resulting aesthetic structure communicates to a sympathetic reader. Ultimately, the question is whether this book is the "astonishing" achievement Joan Didion took it to be in her early review.

                              1

It's as if he has set a camera down in the middle of the event, in the tradition of Warhol and cinéma vérité, and simply recorded all that passed the camera's eye.

                              —Chris Anderson

When Chris Anderson says that The Executioner's Song resembles Warhol's more extravagant experiments he is referring to his impression upon first reading Mailer's book; according to Anderson, a second reading reveals the author's shaping hand in ways that recall Truman Capote's in In Cold Blood. Anderson's comment is all too representative, for it does take some time to appreciate that there is a "shaping consciousness" at work. For example, a number of critics have pointed to Mailer's habit of concluding narrative sections with telling comments phrased in his own voice, as when he compares Gilmore's trip home after being released from prison to the westward journey of Brenda Nicol's great-grandfather many years earlier. The passage in question connects a dedicated Mormon pioneer and the all-too-aimless Gilmore, a fine irony made available by the author and not one of his characters. And there are many other such moments, often, as noted, at the end of sections. But it is easy to exaggerate Mailer's "presence" in the book as a whole—a few summarizing remarks do not go far in a book of over one thousand pages. Thus Anderson's allusion to Warhol. Thus Richard Stern's amusing comment: "Mailer's absence is so pronounced that it dominates the book like an empty chair at a family dinner." To locate Mailer, I think we need to look not at explicit formulations but the narrative structure itself.

Book 1 of The Executioner's Song is called "Western Voices," and we do overhear many different western voices during the five hundred pages devoted to Gary Gilmore's three and a half months of freedom in Provo, Utah (a period preceded by Gilmore's eighteen years in prison and brought to a stunning conclusion by the two apparently senseless murders he commits). These many western figures primarily observe and comment on Gilmore, however, who remains the unmistakable focal point of book 1. By presenting Gilmore from so many points of view, Mailer provides what seems as broad and objective a portrait as possible. Nonetheless, the details selected highlight certain features of Gilmore's character, as a brief review of part 1, "Gary," should confirm.

The first fifteen pages offer a number of quite sympathetic moments, or details concerning Gilmore's past. In these first pages, his cousin, Brenda Nicol, remembers a seven-year-old Gary helping her during "a good family get-together"; the unattractive details of Gary's reform-school days in Portland are left out of the narrative; Brenda's sister, Toni, testifies to the impact of Gary's drawings, especially those that depict "children with great sad eyes"; one of Gilmore's letters is quoted in which he says of prison, "It's like another planet," a haunting simile reinforced a bit later when he remarks that he seldom saw stars in prison; the pathetic austerity of Gilmore's one tote bag, his inability to stop "gawking" at beautiful girls, and his ignorance of the fact one can try on clothes before buying them all point up his abysmal past; and Gilmore's sensitive interplay with the small children of friends is noted twice. Later in part 1, when Gilmore meets Nicole Baker, those who know him are amazed at his positive transformation. These early pages consistently present Gilmore as a kind of waif, good at heart but deprived of the normal opportunities to express his goodness. Almost immediately, however, evidence from several sources begins to define Gilmore as what Mailer calls a "habit-ridden petty monster," "trapped" within his apparently unshakable selfishness. During his first date in Provo, Gilmore demands sex, refuses to listen when told he must earn things, and raises his fist against a woman who has done nothing to him; only a few weeks later he repeats this performance with a second date, finally busting the windshield of her car when she refuses to sleep with him. In the midst of many conversations, Gilmore launches into grim prison stories about beating a convict with a hammer, photographing a convict performing fellatio on himself, killing "this black dude … a bad nigger," and tattooing a friend with little phalluses; indeed, this ominous repertoire of prison tales is trotted out whenever Gilmore makes a new acquaintance in book 1. Soon we observe Gilmore lying to his sympathetic parole officer and shouting obscenities at a movie screen. Thus Mailer establishes at once the extraordinary difficulty of defining Gilmore's essence or even how one should respond to him.

This complex portrait is embellished throughout the remaining six parts of book 1. As developed in part 2 ("Nicole") and part 3 ("Gary and Nicole"), Gilmore's affair with Nicole deepens our sense of both his pathos and his viciousness. Mailer's treatment of their first days together is very sympathetic. He takes seriously their belief in reincarnation and presents without irony their separate assertions that they knew each other "from other time." He shows Gilmore playing the engaging youthful lover despite the fact that he is thirty-five and Nicole nineteen: Gilmore labels Nicole his "elf," carves their names on an apple tree, and tells her "that he hoped no unnecessary tragedies would ever befall them." With Nicole he seems much more in control of himself, as when he tells her that the whole point of living is "facing yourself." Yet Gilmore still seems compulsively violent: he forces Nicole into all-night sexual engagements to combat his impotence, clips off the speakers in a drive-in, hits Nicole at least twice, throws a tape deck at a security guard, and gets drunk soon after promising to give up drinking. His frequent reflections on reincarnation betray his basic childishness, for at this point his faith is little more than a pleasant fantasy: "After death, he said, he was going to start all over again. Have the kind of life he always wished he had." So it is no surprise when Gilmore cannot sustain his relationship with Nicole, who leaves him toward the end of part 3. Indeed, the depressing histories presented in part 2 offer almost no hope that Gilmore and Nicole can reverse the pattern of failure that informs both lives.

The first three parts of book 1 create sympathy for Gilmore even as they document his "monstrous" character. This opening movement is crucial to the work's overall effect, for beginning with part 4, "The Gas Station and the Motel," Mailer is obliged to record Gilmore's ghastly performance in murdering for $100 one night and $125 the next. The almost shockingly flat account of the Jensen and Bushnell murders is followed by Gilmore's pathetic effort to make love to Nicole's fifteen-year-old sister, April; his absurdly amateurish lies to the police; his repulsive boasting about the seventy to one hundred "successful" robberies he committed as a kid and the murder of Bushnell; and his extremely evasive stance at the subsequent trial, where he claims that he had no control over himself when he committed the murders, that it was fated for him to kill Bushnell. In part 5 ("The Shadows of the Dream"), part 6 ("The Trial of Gary M. Gilmore"), and part 7 ("Death Row"), we see Gilmore at a much greater distance, back in jail and no longer the somewhat sympathetic figure of the early sections. During Mailer's clinical account of the murders and Gilmore's subsequent arrest, trial, and sentencing, our "hero" often seems little more than the "recidivist" that John Hersey takes him to be. There is precious little to corroborate the initial hints that Gilmore is in part the victim of a system that imprisons a man for almost his entire adult life for relatively petty crimes. By the end of book 1, however, a strangely positive side to Gilmore does emerge, one that will become a major subject in book 2.

I refer in part to Gilmore's relative stability when he becomes once again a convict. Early in his jail stint in Provo, Gilmore tells a fellow convict, "I am in my element now," and the final sections of book 1 tend to confirm this claim rather than to undercut it as another instance of Gilmore's cheap self-inflation. But I also refer to the odd capacity Gilmore seems to develop to judge his life with apparent objectivity. Soon after his arrest, he tells an officer, "I can't keep up with life," as accurate a comment on his frenetic three and a half months in Provo as anyone is able to offer. A bit later Gilmore writes a long letter to Nicole in which he says that he cannot be the devil because he loves Nicole and the devil cannot love. "But I might be further from God than I am from the devil," he adds. "It seems that I know evil more intimately than I know goodness." This remarkable letter is followed by others equally fascinating, letters in which he praises Nicole's fearlessness, speaks of the unendurable pain he felt when he thought he had lost Nicole, celebrates their two months together while referring again to the thousands of years they may have known each other, and affirms courage as the ultimate virtue. Perhaps the most important letter is the one in which he tells Nicole, "I believe we always have a choice."

Gilmore's choice now is to die rather than to allow his soul to deteriorate further in this life. This logic leads him to reject any appeal of the death penalty, a decision that soon makes him nationally famous and confirms Mailer's portrait of Gilmore as profoundly ambiguous. This man who acts like a barbarian at one moment and quotes Emerson at another is a "mystery," Mailer has said, "malignant at his worst and heroic at his best." Book 1 does not verify Gilmore's heroism, but it does project a man whose complications are as vivid as his unforgettable malignancy. Gilmore as habit-ridden monster is the key to book 1, but we are made to ask whether this is all there is to say about the man. In book 2, of course, Mailer will offer many more words, as he pursues the mystery of Gary Gilmore through another five hundred pages.

Before turning to the lawyers and media figures who dominate book 2, we should note the role of the many relatives, friends, acquaintances, and victims who share the stage with Gilmore in book 1. These people are observers who contribute to the composite picture of Gary Gilmore, but they also help Mailer achieve the broad social panorama he admires in writers as different as Tolstoy and Dreiser. Indeed, Mailer has chided himself for doing so little with the secondary characters in his previous novels, a "flaw" he hoped to correct in The Executioner's Song. Here Mailer develops virtually every "minor" character and permits each to speak in something like his or her own voice, however much the several idioms blend into the flat, colloquial style for which the book is famous. Mailer's defense of his unadorned prose might apply to the minor characters themselves: "one's style is only a tool to use on a dig." Like the style by which we know them, the secondary characters are supposed to contribute to the book's larger formal ends.

One such end is to "examine" the American reality exposed by the strange saga of Gary Gilmore. Joan Didion sees Mailer as capturing two crucial features of western America. The first is "that emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor." The second is an inability to direct our own lives, a failing so pervasive that all the characters seem to share in "a fatalistic drift, a tension, an overwhelming and passive rush toward the inevitable events that will end in Gary Gilmore's death." I believe that Didion's insights are exaggerated, but they do point up suggestive connections between Gilmore and the people who surround him. Bessie Gilmore, Brenda Nicol, Vern Damico, Kathryne Baker and her daughters Nicole and April—all are "trapped" in their futile efforts to find a life worth living. Indeed, almost every woman in the book first marries at fifteen or sixteen and eventually marries at least three or four times, and the men seem equally caught up in the fatalistic drift Didion notices. Didion does not do justice to the admirable stability of people like Brenda Nicol and Vern Damico, but the wasted lives of those around Gilmore suggest that his own fate is only an exaggerated instance of that moral emptiness Didion hears in the book's western voices.

In this respect as in others, Nicole Baker is the second most important character. Mailer has called her "a bona fide American heroine," but most readers will think she is rather the quintessential American victim. Promiscuous at eleven, institutionalized at thirteen, married at fourteen and again at fifteen, Nicole suffers three broken marriages before she is twenty. "Sex had never been new to Nicole," we are told, and it is more than plausible when she runs off with an older man because "she didn't care where she was going." Yet Nicole has virtues to match her troubling irresponsibility. As Gilmore sees, she is fearless and fiercely loyal. These are the very qualities that Gilmore counts on when he manipulates her toward a suicide pact. In his many letters from jail, he pleads with Nicole not to make love with other men, to give up sex altogether, and to join him on the other side in death. At the end of book 1, he leads her toward a double suicide attempt that epitomizes both his romanticism and his selfishness, even as it climaxes Mailer's portrait of Nicole as an endearing victim. Later Nicole will be denied the "clean" resolution of death, will emerge from yet another institution to tell Larry Schiller (and Mailer) the story of her love for Gary Gilmore, and will finally drift off to Oregon to new lovers if not a new life. Nicole's story is a familiar one among her family and friends; years of acute aimlessness followed by an utterly hopeless commitment. Surely it is no accident that Nicole comes to love Gilmore most fiercely when he is cut off from her forever. For the Nicoles of the world (and perhaps this means for all of us), there is no consummation except in an imagined future.

The stories of Nicole and the other witnesses point to one of Mailer's most crucial decisions in structuring book 1. Rather than trace Gilmore's grim history from reform school through his term in Marion, Illinois, Mailer chooses to focus on Gilmore's last months in Provo in 1976. The reasons for this no doubt include Mailer's desire to achieve greater dramatic unity and to emphasize Gilmore's "mystery" instead of the familiar stages of American crime and punishment. But another important reason is to allow Mailer to flesh out the human context in which Gilmore plays his final role or sings his final song, as the title would have it. This context is dominated by the same hateful "habits" that take more spectacular forms in Gilmore. Yet the human resources displayed in book 1 should not be dismissed quite so easily as Didion's formulation would suggest. Here we get example after example of human folly, western style, but also many instances of what Mailer calls "American virtue," the American's dogged determination to do his or her best in the worst of circumstances. The range of such portraits is really quite extraordinary, from Gilmore's mother, Bessie, to Brenda Nicol, to the Damicos, to the irrepressible Nicole. One of the earliest reviewers called The Executioner's Song "a remarkably compassionate work," and the truth in this judgment should remind us that, like Mailer's portrait of Gilmore, book 1 is structured to highlight the human frailties as well as the abominations of American life.

It might seem that book 2 offers a less sympathetic, more satirical history of Gilmore's last months. The very title of part 1, "In the Reign of Good King Boaz," signals a new kind of irony. Here lawyers and the press are omnipresent and one eighty-two-page section, "Exclusive Rights," is devoted to virtually nothing but Larry Schiller's and David Susskind's efforts to corner the Gilmore market, so to speak, by securing exclusive rights to his story. Packs of reporters are everywhere, confirming Mailer's worst fears about the press. The many lawyers introduced are often distinguished by one bizarre detail or another, as when Earl Dorius, Utah's assistant attorney general, is excited at the prospect of an execution and proceeds to work himself into a near breakdown to ensure that the state of Utah gets its execution on 17 January 1977, or when Dennis Boaz, Gilmore's second lawyer, supports his client's desire to be executed until it occurs to him that Gary would prefer to live if he could have connubial visits from Nicole, perhaps in Mexico! Gilmore's final lawyers Bob Moody and Ron Stanger, are a good deal less eccentric, but they too partake in the grim legal struggle in which the state of Utah pursues its pound of flesh, and the ACLU and other liberal groups fight stubbornly to save a man who does not want to be saved. The ironies here are obvious and may even seem undramatic. In the film version of The Executioner's Song, scenarist Mailer and director Schiller chose to leave out most of the materials of book 2, as if they were less relevant than the more "immediate" events of book 1.

My own view is that book 2 is at least as interesting as book 1, a remarkable feat when one considers that the protagonist is all but unavailable and the heroine is locked up throughout. Once again Mailer gets great mileage from his so-called minor figures, a few of whom (e.g., Boaz, Schiller, Barry Farrell) are among his most memorable characters. Of real interest for their own sake, they also provide perspective on Gilmore. For example, Gary's brother Mikal is at first reluctant to allow his brother to die and participates in legal actions to prevent it. When he finally talks with Gary, however, Mikal is won over by his brother's seriousness and depth of feeling. As they part, Gary first kisses Mikal, then utters perhaps the most haunting words in this very long book: "See you in the darkness." A cellmate of Gilmore's named Gibbs also effectively testifies on Gary's behalf. A police informer, Gibbs refers to Gilmore as the most courageous convict he has even seen. And Gilmore's relatives, especially Vern Damico and Toni Gurney, find themselves moving ever closer to Gilmore as he approaches death. Toni's relationship with Gilmore is especially moving. She first visits him the day before he is to be executed and is overwhelmed by his gentle affection. Later that day, after her own birthday party, she returns to the party Gilmore has been permitted at the prison and again experiences Gary's new warmth. Toni is sufficiently moved to try to attend Gary's execution. This sequence blends with many other small but affecting moments to verify the change in Gilmore that is sensed by many people during his final weeks.

Mailer uses Barry Farrell and Larry Schiller to temper the more sentimental implications of book 2, but ultimately these veteran journalists also testify to Gilmore's surprising depth. The title of book 2, "Eastern Voices," seems to refer to all those safely established in the social system, whether in the East or the West: lawyers, reporters, producers, assistant attorney generals, and so on. Farrell and Schiller are such voices. Each brings a heavy load of urban skepticism to the Gilmore assignment, hating Salt Lake City, as Farrell does, and believing there is no "center" to this story, nothing of real human resonance. When both men come to see Gilmore in a very different light, Mailer is able to bring his book to a genuine climax.

Farrell is at first confident that nothing sets Gilmore apart but his willingness to die. If Gilmore is not executed, Farrell suggests, he will become indistinguishable from the hundreds of others condemned to die but never executed. As he works with Gilmore's responses to hundreds of questions, however, Farrell notices that Gilmore "was now setting out to present the particular view of himself he wanted people to keep." Later Farrell responds profoundly to Gilmore's tapes: "Barry was crying and laughing and felt half triumphant that the man could talk with such clarity." Farrell still believes that Gilmore "had a total contempt for life," but this makes it all the more impressive when Gilmore responds so "humanely" to the massive attention of his last months. Farrell is stunned at Gilmore's apparent complexity. In the transcripts Farrell spots "twenty-seven poses," twenty-seven different Gilmores ("racist Gary and Country-and-Western Gary, artist manqué Gary, macho Gary"). Farrell begins to pursue the single Gary who presumably stands behind these multiple poses, but he is "seized with depression at how few were the answers" to his inquiry. There is an "evil genius" in Gilmore's planning Nicole's suicide, but much else in Gilmore's life suggests sheer ignorance; Gilmore's relations with Bessie, his mother, seem a potential key, but the answers to many related questions provide no "hope of a break-through." Continuing to ponder Gilmore's transcripts just before the execution, Farrell turns to yet another possible solution to the Gilmore mystery: Gilmore's fascination with small children. But this "answer" is also unsatisfactory: "It was too insubstantial. In fact, it was sheer speculation … beware of understanding the man too quickly!" Beware indeed. Farrell's final comment on Gilmore takes us back to the passage from André Gide ("Please do not understand me too quickly") that Mailer first used as his epigraph to The Deer Park (1955). Farrell's conclusion should caution us against reductive readings, psychological efforts to pluck out Gilmore's mystery. Indeed, Gilmore's complexity should impress us as much as it does Farrell, whose prolonged efforts to understand Gilmore are akin to Mailer's.

Larry Schiller's role is in part like Farrell's. Schiller also looks for the human side to Gilmore, the "sympathetic character" buried inside the cold-blooded killer, for Schiller cannot imagine making a successful book or film unless he first makes this discovery. Like Farrell, Schiller begins with many doubts and ends up convinced of Gilmore's essential seriousness, especially on such matters as life after death. Schiller shares with Farrell the scenarist's desire to grasp his subject, to "reduce Gary's mystery, attach him to conditions, locate him in history." Together Farrell and Schiller prove that it is impossible to achieve this "reduction" no matter how many materials are carefully scrutinized. Schiller's role is larger than Farrell's, however, for it also includes Schiller's personal drama. Both Farrell and Schiller make interesting discoveries about Gary Gilmore, but Schiller makes such discoveries about himself as well.

In book 2 Schiller's importance surpasses Nicole's and rivals Gilmore's. Much of book 2 is organized around Schiller's efforts to sign up the principals in the Gilmore story and to get information from Gilmore before the execution. This intricate, frustrating process educates Schiller about Gilmore, but it also constitutes a belated rite de passage for Schiller, who becomes "part of the story," as he himself notes. Before coming to Utah, Schiller has achieved "a terrible reputation" as a journalist. The last man to interview Jack Ruby, the author of "a quick and rotten book" about Susan Atkins, Schiller describes himself as a "communicator" but is laughed at by people who take him to be a hustler or, worse, "a carrion bird." Even his fiancée labels him a "manipulator." With the Gilmore story, Schiller struggles to be a good businessman as well as a good journalist, but he often seems to lose this fight as he worries whether there are any "sympathetic characters" in the plot he has purchased, works out alternate scenarios depending on whether Gilmore is executed, and schemes to get at Nicole, the love interest in this "democratic Romeo and Juliet," as Boaz describes the Gilmore tale.

Yet Schiller turns out to be much more than a carrion bird. He deals more honestly with everyone involved than most of us would have done; he suffers acute physical and emotional stress in deciding how far to go in exploiting his material; and he ends up committing himself to doing the best he can for the story rather than his bank account, even rejecting an offer of $250,000 from the New York Post. In his afterword Mailer says that Schiller "stood for his portrait, and drew maps to his faults" during their interviews. As Mailer remarks elsewhere, Schiller "wanted the best book that could be gotten out of what had become the biggest event in his own life, and so he did not spare himself, he offered himself." As a result, Schiller's faults and his final integrity in confronting them are deeply embedded in Mailer's text.

Schiller's role in The Executioner's Song is a bit like Mailer's in The Armies of the Night (1968). I have referred to Schiller's experience as a rite of passage, and of course that is the nature of Mailer's experience at the March on the Pentagon. In each case a man of mixed motives, even a mild cynicism, comes to believe in what he is doing and to act more honorably than we would have thought possible when introduced to him. Schiller is only one of many important characters in this large book, so he is not as central as Mailer is in Armies. As we shall see, however, his story very much resembles Mailer's in pointing up his book's more positive implications. The point to be made here is that Schiller's late-blooming integrity confirms Mailer's portrait of Gilmore as a man of unsuspected depth. The more we come to believe in Larry Schiller, the more we believe in his conception of Gary Gilmore.

This is not to say that Mailer's Gilmore is saintly. In fact, Mailer has noted his distaste for Gilmore: "When I started The Executioner's Song, I thought I would like him more than I did." In book 2 as much as in book 1, Mailer does ample justice to what is unattractive, even hateful in Gilmore. Gilmore's intense racism is evident throughout book 2; he never expresses any real contrition for his crimes; he is a man with "surprising veins of compassion or real feeling," but also "large areas that were absolutely unfeeling"; his diatribes against "publicity-hunting lawyers" are amusing but foul, exhibiting the "little mean streak" Gilmore is still exposing just before his death; to the nurses who treat him after his first suicide attempt, he is simply "spiteful, revengeful, obscene." Joseph Wenke points out that after his arrest Gilmore becomes "more and more demonically manipulative as his futile, despairing, and incredibly selfish desire to possess Nicole assumes control of his being." Indeed, Gilmore is still demanding celibacy of Nicole in his last letter, just as he is still asking his lawyers to help him to escape after supposedly resigning himself to a death that is best for his soul.

Yet Mailer's Gilmore is a man with "a capacity to grow," for Mailer the most crucial heroic quality. Mailer agrees with Boaz, Farrell, and Schiller that Gilmore is "serious about dying with dignity." For Gilmore, this means recognizing that we can choose death as well as life. In an interview Gilmore says, "In death you can choose in a way that you can't choose in life," an assertion that reveals Gilmore's great difficulty in making choices in life but also the seriousness of his belief in karma. Gilmore's earlier remarks on karma and reincarnation may seem juvenile, but his later statements impress Mailer (as well as such witnesses as Farrell and Schiller) that Gilmore achieves a genuine philosophical conviction. Thus Gilmore is able to say, when asked if there is anything worse than taking someone's life, "Well, you could alter somebody's life so that the quality of it wouldn't be what it could've been…. I think to make somebody go on living in a lessened state of existence, I think that could be worse than killing 'em." Mailer obviously sympathizes with this view, just as he shares Gilmore's belief that "the meaning of the events in any given life can't be comprehended entirely by what one's done in one life" (Mailer's definition of karma). Gilmore's desire to die rather than to deteriorate further appeals to Mailer as an act of self-definition but also as morally valid; as Mailer says, "We have profound choices to make in life, and one of them may be the deep and terrible choice most of us avoid between dying now and 'saving one's soul' … in order, conceivably, to be reincarnated." Thus Mailer describes Gilmore's belief in karma as "profound" and highlights Gilmore's growing ability to analyze his own moral condition, as when Gilmore says, "I was always capable of murder…. There's a side of me that I don't like. I can become totally devoid of feelings for others, unemotional. I know I'm doing something grossly fucking wrong. I can still go ahead and do it." No one in The Executioner's Song offers a more persuasive psychological profile of Gilmore than Gilmore himself.

Gilmore's capacity to "grow" is impressive, but it does not lead Mailer to forget Gilmore's viciousness. Instead, it leads Mailer to conclude that it is hard to draw conclusions. Mailer says that as he learned more and more about Gilmore he "knew less and less." His efforts to define Gilmore are no more successful than Farrell's or Schiller's, unless it is a success to realize that Gilmore is finally "too complex" to label. Mailer's Gilmore challenges society's "firm premise that we have one life and one life only and that if we waste this one life there is nothing worse we can do," but his sordid acts and unalterable meanness call into question the coherence of his personality. For Mailer, this makes Gilmore "another major American protagonist," someone who "comprehends a deep contradiction in this country and lives his life in the crack of that contradiction." But this means Gilmore is only in part "a modern man in search of his soul, wondering whether he might be closer to God or Devil, wanting to make himself whole, willing to pay his debts until he is right and clean and able to 'stand in the sight of God,'" as Begiebing would have it. Gilmore is also a habit-ridden monster whose essence is contradictory, if indeed he has a definable essence.

This balanced assessment of Gilmore is the key to the work's structure. Book 1 tends to highlight Gilmore's violence and book 2 his capacity to "grow," but each presents Gilmore's strengths and weaknesses through the eyes of many witnesses who try to understand this profoundly enigmatic figure. The very mode of representation stresses the many different perspectives on Gilmore, who is the one significant character never seen from "within." In addition, the book's sheer size underlines the many facts any theory about Gilmore must finally encompass. Whether witnessing Gilmore's grimmest acts (as in book 1) or pondering his most intelligent self-assessments (as in book 2), we are all but overwhelmed by the difficulty of reducing the material or the man to manageable dimensions. Some have felt that Mailer aggrandizes Gilmore by presenting his affair with Nicole in "tragic tones" denied to Gilmore's victims, but Mailer's handling of Gilmore's last hours illustrates the more complicated effect of his narrative method.

Toward the end Mailer continues to present Gilmore as he is seen by others in relatively detailed accounts of Gilmore's last-night party, the execution, the autopsy, the memorial service held on Gilmore's behalf, and the dispersal of Gilmore's ashes after cremation. In these final sections, however, the views of the several witnesses blend into a common awe of Gilmore's cool acceptance of his fate. This effect is most pronounced during the execution scene, in which Mailer shifts the point of view twenty times among seven characters yet seems to present an event perceived in much the same way by everyone present. The effect is awesome—indeed, the scene is perhaps the most powerful in all of Mailer's writing—but not in such a way as to exonerate or glorify Gilmore. Gilmore's courage is acknowledged here much as his monstrousness is acknowledged in the depiction of the Jensen and Bushnell murders. Mailer's comment on the autopsy scene also points to the nature of his narrative interests: "That's why I took the execution right through the autopsy—because that was something that I wanted the reader to feel. That's what it means when we kill a man. That even this man who wanted to die and succeeded in getting society to execute him, that even when he was killed, we still feel this horrible shock and loss." We feel shock and loss despite what we know of Gilmore's selfishness and despite our now intimate knowledge of what he has done. In part we respond because of what we have come to know of Gilmore as lover, Gilmore as poet, Gilmore as philosopher, and especially Gilmore as self-critic. In part we respond because, all his faults fully acknowledged, Gilmore remains complexly human. Like the book itself, our response is a complicated one that we can only try to dissect, as I have just done. To try to get at the meaning of such responses, as I am about to do, is an effort that Mailer makes a part of his very subject in this massive, painful, but fully articulated masterpiece.

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[Gilmore] appealed to me because he embodied many of the themes I've been living with all my life long.

                                  —Norman Mailer

I used to hate America for what it was doing to all of us. Now I hate all of us for what we're doing to America.

                                 —Norman Mailer

There are of course many meanings in The Executioner's Song, but the one to which I refer at the end of the last section has been very popular among Mailer's more recent critics. Noting Mailer's challenge to traditional generic definitions and his insistence on Gilmore's ultimately impenetrable "mystery," these critics argue that Mailer's theme is "the necessity of fiction for the apprehension of complex reality," or "the fictionality of all narrative," or the view that "all history is in the end fiction." Mailer's sympathy with such views is both real and longstanding. As long ago as his 1954 essay on David Riesman, Mailer referred to the need for a sociological "fiction" to make sense of American life; at the end of The Armies of the Night, Mailer makes fun of journalistic pretenses to complete accuracy; and in his afterword to The Executioner's Song, Mailer acknowledges the editorial contributions (however minor) that went into the making of his book. I suspect that Mailer would agree with Phyllis McCord that The Executioner's Song demonstrates the subjective nature of all truth. But it is harder to accept the notion that this is Mailer's principal theme, central to everything he does in this huge book. To accept such an idea is to place Mailer among the metafictionists—something I cannot imagine doing without major qualifications.

Mailer's social interests in this book are simply too obvious to push aside as illustrating the fictionality of all narrative. Though Mailer dramatizes the difficulty of achieving even an unsure grasp of his material, his task is nonetheless to examine the American reality embedded in this material. Mailer once said that his material was "gold" if he "had enough sense not to gild it," and I think we should indeed ask what gemlike themes inform The Executioner's Song.

The possible answers to this question begin with Mailer's characterization of Gilmore. For many readers Gilmore is a reconceived, more artistic version of the hipster first glorified in Mailer's "The White Negro" (1957). For one such critic, Gilmore is "the figure of the artist of the self, defining and redefining his personality, controlling events and other characters, projecting a world." For another, Gilmore walks in shackles between guards but "looks freer than they, and people visiting him suspect they are the ones in prison." I have already suggested that these are very selective views of Gilmore, half-truths at best. Gilmore is no more adequately described as a hipster than is Marion Faye in The Deer Park. Neither the fictional Marion nor the real Gilmore commits himself to "that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self" by which Mailer identifies the hipster. This is especially true if we recall that the hipster's "journey" is a sensual one, quite literally an adventure of the senses. As I argue elsewhere, Marion's "black heroic safari" is a matter of will and intellect, and Gilmore's actions prior to his final arrest are so aimless they can hardly be called a quest for anything. Even Gilmore's efforts to die with dignity derive from his will and spirit, not his senses. To think of Gilmore as a sexual rebel is to see at once how little he resembles Mailer's late-1950s ideal.

I suggest we might better see Gilmore as Mailer sees him: a man who lives his life in the crack of a deep American contradiction. To one side of this crack is the nihilistic emptiness Didion emphasizes, the "estrangement" Wenke rightly sees in most of the younger people in book 1 (though I would add older women such as Brenda Nicol and Kathryne Baker, each of whom marries four times). Gilmore's mistreatment of several women permits Mailer to present a seemingly endless chain of victimized women, young and old. What Didion hears in their voices is resignation, the belief that they cannot influence events. Perhaps the most memorable voice is that of Kathy Maynard, the young woman who discovers Nicole after her suicide attempt. In an interview Kathy describes her own life in the flattest tone imaginable: married at sixteen for no particular reason; witness to her seventeen-year-old husband's suicide with a hunting knife; married again two weeks later to a man she met at her husband's funeral; stranded at seventeen with two small children, no husband, and no particular sense of what she will do next week. Mailer has said that this interview is the one transcript he did not even abridge, for it was "a found object" he could not improve upon. One might describe Kathy as stoical, Didion's term for all the book's women, but stoicism implies recognition of the horrors one is resigned to and Kathy seems merely oblivious. Her brief tale should remind us of the real desert that surrounds these small Utah towns and the metaphorical desert to which Didion alludes.

Kathy Maynard's story is one side of The Executioner's Song in miniature, but there are many other memorable examples. My own favorite involves Nicole's mother, Kathryne Baker. When Gilmore retrieves a gun just before he kills Jensen, Kathryne realizes she does not even know his last name. This after Gilmore has lived with Nicole for two months! At such moments the book's westerners appear to be what Wenke calls them, "the beat legatees of the spiritually and politically exhausted hipsters, hippies, and left radicals whom Mailer derides at the conclusion of Of a Fire on the Moon." But they are in fact a much broader cross-section of the American social order, including the conventional Mormons who become Gilmore's "new jailers" (and his victims, for both Jensen and Bushnell are Mormon), the Utah lawyers who prosecute and defend Gilmore, and the many lower-middle-class and lower-class figures whose lives resemble Nicole's but who could not define a "left radical." What they share is a less extreme version of Kathy Maynard's tolerance for the intolerable.

Gilmore is the figure in the book who seems to rebel against this aimless society, just as he is the one who scorns the liberal establishment that takes him up as a "cause" in book 2: thus the common view of Gilmore as a Maileresque hero. The partial truth to this view is suggested by Mailer's statement that Gilmore embodied themes that Mailer has lived with all his life. Among these themes is the heroic individual's passionate (and often destructive) attempt to reject the deadly social environment endured so stoically by the book's western women. This attempt can also be seen in Gilmore's rejection of life in prison, his "dignified" preference for whatever succeeds this life. Indeed, Gilmore's concern for the hereafter is another of the themes to which Mailer no doubt refers, for the religious dimensions of Gilmore's thought correspond to Mailer's oft-expressed convictions or intuitions. Yet Gilmore is no less estranged than the people who surround him in prison or Provo, no less self-destructive, no less frozen in those "habits" to which Mailer relentlessly draws our attention. In his last days, Gilmore may achieve some perspective on his own compulsions and aspire to something more dignified, but he is also the book's primary example of someone who cannot endure life as it is experienced by all the other characters from Kathy Maynard to Larry Schiller. Gilmore is a mystery and not a model, a man who embodies Mailer's themes but not his solutions.

Mailer does not offer answers to the overwhelming problems his characters face, but The Executioner's Song is much less pessimistic than many of its admirers suggest. Mailer says that one of the lessons he learned is that the system is "fairer" than he had supposed: "The way things work in America is not necessarily as sinister as I always assumed. There may not be this grand paranoid network after all." This discovery lies behind Mailer's remark that he used to hate America for what it was doing to all of us but now hates us for what we are doing to America. Behind Mailer's hatred for America lay the paranoid's assumption that "they" were in conspiracy against an innocent citizenry; behind his hatred for us lies the romantic's faith that we know not what we do. Mailer's beliefs might be compared with the Transcendental notion that we always pursue the good but do not know what the good is (see Emerson's "The American Scholar" and Thoreau's Walden as primary texts). Thus our aimlessness or compulsive materialism, our mindless conformity or violent resistance. Thus the world represented in extremis by Gary Gilmore.

As Mailer says, however, this world seems to be fairer and less sinister than he always supposed. Indeed, the unifying subject in Mailer's story is what he calls "American virtue." In Mailer's view, everyone involved here wished to do "the right thing" and went to some trouble to act accordingly. This dedication to principle is the other side of the American contradiction embodied in Gilmore. Rocklike conservatives seeking the death penalty, dedicated liberals seeking to avoid a state execution, lawyers on all sides, friends of Gilmore, friends of his victims, men such as Barry Farrell and Larry Schiller—all did their best as they understood the best. Schiller is perhaps the most notable example, but only because his "best" involves personal growth—virtue in its most positive form. Many other examples of American virtue are grim reminders of why Mailer "hates" us for what we are doing to America. As he does with Gilmore, however, Mailer captures these other Americans in the richly detailed (if depressing) context of their dull habits and assumptions, a context elaborately built up page by page as Mailer offers the most compelling "social drama" of his long career.

If we read this book as Mailer conceived it, we must feel compassion for nearly everyone—for Kathy Maynard as well as Larry Schiller, for Earl Dorius as well as Kathryne Baker, for the youthful April Baker as well as the elderly Bessie Gilmore. Finally, there must also be compassion for Gary Gilmore, just as there must be "hate" for what Gilmore and the rest of us are doing to each other. The least judgmental of Mailer's works, The Executioner's Song is also the book in which Mailer's love for America is most impressively in evidence. Mailer has said that he learned from the Gilmore saga that society might not be evil but rather "a sad comedy." This phrase also applies to the "astonishing" book he wrote in the wake of his discovery.

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