Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book Review: The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

The Executioner's SongOccasionally in life, certain elements conspire, and individuals are cast into exceptional situations. With the glare of the spotlight, and the realization that their every move in a bizarre drama is being chronicled for posterity, the players often step up, and are so thrilled that they have the starring roles in their own real-time soap opera watched by millions, that something surreal happens. A strange hybrid of "reality" plays out that makes you question the motives, observations, and sanity of all those involved.

So it is with The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer. The book details two murders committed by Gary Gilmore in Utah in 1976 and the lead-up to his execution by firing squad less than a year later.

This is probably the best true crime book that I have ever read. While the actual crimes are not remotely as intriguing as the Manson murders detailed in Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, the stunning amount of information presented, and the writing of Norman Mailer, ranks it above that other true crime classic.

The book is split into two main parts: the details surrounding Gilmore's attempt to reintegrate into society and the ultimate failure to achieve that—the two murders he commits—and the period of Gilmore's incarceration leading up to his execution by firing squad in early 1977.

Nasty Piece of Work


Gary GilmoreIn the early part of the book, Gilmore comes across as what I feel he truly was—a worthless white trash criminal who was violent, ignorant, and unable to fit into society in any way. The smallest slight would push Gilmore to the edge, and he was quick to look for ways to get revenge on those who did not give him the respect that he felt he deserved. Despite all his talk of jail-house honour codes, he was gutless in many ways. In one incident, he challenged a co-worker to a fight and then punched the man in the back of the head as they were heading outside to settle things.

Enjoyably, Gilmore still got his head literally ground into the concrete in that dust-up. Similarly pleasing to read about is another incident in which Gilmore finally does engage in the closest thing to a fair fight, and promptly gets his face split open as he is dropped to the ground with a single punch. While no doubt a fearsome individual, Gilmore is nothing more than a contemptible coward. In an anecdote Gilmore told numerous times, he walks up behind an inmate sitting on a chair, and drives a hammer into his head. In still another attempt at impressing people with his tough guy credentials, he brags about a two-on-one attack on an inmate using pipes. Whether these tales are true is irrelevant (how easy would it be for an inmate to get his hands on a hammer?): what a man wants to be admired for is very telling.

Gilmore suffered that singular trait that seems to afflict all small-time hoods: a complete inability to delay gratification. After being released from prison to start his life again in Utah with the help of his extended family, he quickly highlights himself as a petulant man-child as he demands the accoutrements of life that take most people many years to acquire. He does make an attempt to some limited degree after he gets assistance in finding work. But he quickly lets people down, becomes a serial shop-lifter, and develops a bizarre fixation for buying a used pick-up truck. When the frustration of trying to function in society becomes too much, Gilmore murders two people in as many days to, as he says, "relieve the pressure."

Throughout the entire book, Gilmore not once expresses remorse for the killings. Sure, he talks about wanting to be executed so that he can "pay the price," but that always comes across as a desire to escape the horrors of prison that he had come to know so well. Gilmore apparently even had an aversion to mentioning the victims' names. Once, when responding to written questions, he repeatedly misspells the name of one of the men he killed.

White Trash Romeo and Juliet?


Nicole Baker BarrettA major part of the book focuses on Gilmore's brief affair with Nicole Baker Barrett, a single mother he meets shortly after arriving in Provo, Utah. Together, they are some of the lowest, seediest pieces of pure white trash you will ever read about. The essence of filth distilled into its purest essence. Barrett is presented as one of the most shameless sluts that you will ever encounter in either fiction or non-fiction. She essentially fucks whatever walks. For example, prior to meeting Gilmore, she sleeps with a man who picks her up while hitch-hiking, and then promptly marries him.

But that alone is not enough to engender contempt for a hard-done by young woman who had few opportunities in life, and was used and abused by many. In one episode, she tells a man that she will kill him if he brings charges against Gilmore for attacking him. All the while she demonstrates a sad, despicable neglect towards her children. This does not mean that she is not worthy of sympathy—she is. But it seems to be a sympathy far too easily doled out for the simple fact that she is a very attractive woman. Just imagine what kind of condemnation she would have received if she had been fat and haggard?

Her affair with Gilmore was incredibly short—it spanned a few months immediately before he slaughtered his victims. During that time, they fought, Gilmore beat her a few times, and then she turfed him out of the house they shared. It was only after he committed the murders and was sentenced to death that their supposed love for each other reached such mythical heights in both their minds.

The appeal of melodrama played out for the whole world, and some horrible, cringe-worthy love letters (when aren't other people's love letters cringe-worthy?) seemed to convince Barrett that the scum-of-the-earth Gilmore was the love of her life. I'm not buying it. This was a romance that only became so passionate under the glare of the media lights and the realization that a certain twisted kind of immortality beckoned if the roles were played to perfection. The ex post facto spin put on her feelings as they are detailed in the book just doesn't wash with me. Entertaining, yes. But anyone who is given the opportunity to be interviewed by one of the greatest writers of our era, and then to have her story presented to the world, cannot help but cast things in a romanticized light.

Locked-up and Sentenced to Death


Gilmore comes across much differently as the book shifts to his time in prison after the murders. Numerous people refer to him as intelligent, and he seems to have an inordinate amount of respect from guards in the prison. While he is very literate and can write fairly well as evidenced by his letters to Nicole, I can't agree with the intelligent label. The guts to push this situation to its conclusion by demanding that his death sentence be carried out is somewhat admirable, but then, his utterly senseless murdering spree negates any positive feelings you may have towards the creep.

Though I question those claims by numerous people in the book that Gilmore was intelligent, he was indeed a master manipulator. After Gilmore is locked up, and there is some doubt that the execution will go ahead, he convinces Barrett that they both should commit suicide on a designated date. His life is wasted, and so he sets his mind to gaslighting Barrett in the hopes that she will off herself. They both make the attempt and both survive. And while it seems pretty clear that Barrett made a legitimate try, Gilmore's attempt seemed half-hearted. You are left with the sense that he had every intention of surviving and hoping that Baker succeeded, content that he could then be executed knowing she would never be with another man.

Plausible but Unprovable


Much of the second half of the book focuses on the machinations of acquiring interview deals, literary rights, and the court wrangling that took place as Gilmore fought for the right to have the state follow through with his death sentence. Specifically, the efforts of Larry Schiller take centre stage. Schiller is a writer and producer with a knack for getting on top of sensationalistic stories and gaining the trust of those involved (or at least convincing them that he will bring them the most money and publicity).

Together with all the legal battles, Gilmore's reactions and public pronouncements, and the effect of the murders on many of the book's supporting characters, the reader gets a pretty honest and in-depth look at how Schiller finagles and operates. We also learn about Schiller's feelings through the entire ordeal, how he is conflicted by various aspects, and how he tries to spin his image to the world-wide media.

Schiller employs the help of Barry Farrell, a professional writer, to assist in putting together interviews that could then be sold to various media outlets during the period of publicity before the execution. As someone trying to explore the issue in as much detail as possible, the reasoning that Farrell engages in to see something positive in Gilmore may grate on some. But at the same time, he offers the most intriguing and thought provoking musings on Gilmore.

Despite the numerous interviews with Gilmore (some by proxy through the lawyers that Gilmore had hired to ensure that the execution was carried out), he gave away very little information about his childhood. However, Farrell synthesizes an intriguing thesis that comes together regarding Gilmore and what he was all about.

Numerous facts may lead some to believe that Gilmore was more than just a small time punk and a ruthless murderer. First, Gilmore repeatedly refers to Barrett as his elf, and talks about her child-like features. Then, at one point, after he has been incarcerated for the murders, Gilmore asks for a book of photographs that could be construed as appealing to pedophiles. And while he was with Barrett, they started having a ménage à trois with an underage teenaged-girl. Finally, some second hand reports from those who had known Gilmore claim that he had once admitted to both being raped in reform school and also committing rapes against other young men while there. And then these observations from Barry Farrell:
Farrell passed it by and then came back. That little elucidative light one depended upon was flickering again. Yes. Could it be said that Gilmore's love for Nicole oft depended on how childlike she could seem? That elf with knee-length socks, so conveniently shorn—by Gilmore—of her pubic locks. Those hints in the letters of hanky panky with Rosebeth, the rumble with Pete Galovan [he had questioned Gilmore on his approach to the underage daughter of a friend]. Barry nodded. You could about say it added up. There was nobody in or out of prison whom hardcore convicts despised more than child molesters. The very bottom of the pecking order. What if Gilmore, so soon as he was deprived of Nicole, so soon as he had to live a week without her, began to feel impulses that were wholly unacceptable? What if his unendurable tension (of which he had given testimony to every psychiatrist who would listen) had had something to do with little urges? Nothing might have been more intolerable to Gilmore's idea of himself. Why, the man would have done anything, even murder, before he'd commit that other kind of transgression. God, it would even account for the awful air of warped nobility he seemed to extract from his homicides. Barry felt the woe of late discovery. He could not say a word about this now. It was too unsubstantial. In fact, it was sheer speculation. If Gilmore was willing to execute himself for such a vice, assuming it was his vice—beware of understanding the man too quickly!—then let him at least die with dignity of his choice. In fact, how much could a word like dignity conceal?
This speculation goes no further but it is highly compelling.

The significance of the Gilmore case can't be overstated. At that time, it marked the first execution in the US after a ten-year break. It also signaled the beginning of a wave of state-sanctioned killings that really has not abated to this day.

Bizarre Facts: A Murderer Named Fay


Aside from the legal importance of the case, and the prurient interest of the details, there are some strange facts that come out in this book. A nasty, sociopathic, cold-blooded killer, Gilmore's real name as it appears on his birth certificate was apparently "Fay." In some odd way, that makes Gilmore seem even more sinister.

Also, the claim is made on a few occasions that Gilmore may have been the grandson of Harry Houdini:
Fay [Gilmore's grandmother on his father's side] and Frank [Gilmore's father] talked about the man, however, like they knew him intimately. Listening to their conversation, Betty [Gilmore's mother, usually called Bessie] had to conclude that Houdini had given Fay the money to send Frank to private school. Then she remembered that Houdini was killed by a boy who hit him in the stomach with a baseball bat, and Frank had told her that his Jewish father, whose name was Weiss, had been killed by a blow to the belly. Then she learned that Houdini's original name was Weiss, and he was Jewish too.
This is referred to briefly a number of other times as well, but it is never confirmed by Mailer. Just another odd factoid in an extremely troubled and wasted life.

Mailer Was a Master


As far as the writing goes, this is a stunning piece of work. The labour that went into extracting the information was performed by Mailer through numerous in-person and telephone interviews, and by Larry Schiller, the producer and writer who acquired the literary rights to many of the key players in the whole twisted drama.

While Mailer engages in very little editorializing (though no doubt there is some in a 1000-page book), inevitably the interviews and commentary have to lead the reader somewhere. At times I felt that somehow the individuals in this seedy drama come off as more complex and sympathetic because of the simple eloquence of Mailer's writing.

Then there is the problem that afflicts every non-fiction book. How do we know how accurate the depiction of events really is? Mailer addresses this question directly in the afterword when he states that numerous discrepancies arose between different people's re-telling of events. And of course, every person has a subjective view of what took place—did Mailer latch on to the most believable presentations of "facts"? Or did he head into the project with a thesis that he was eager to see confirmed by the interviews he conducted? Impossible to say. These are inherent aspects of any reportage. But it is certain that the quality of writing lends plausibility to the book.

There are some flaws in The Executioner's Song if you look hard enough. For example, one lengthy passage that depicts the supposed thoughts of Nicole's younger sister comes off as incredibly contrived. But then, I've rarely, if ever, read an author who is able to convincingly depict the thoughts of someone who is mentally ill. As far as the length, some readers may feel that Mailer includes too much detail—this is really down to personal preference. I enjoyed every last passage, nuance, and angle that resulted in over 1000 pages. The writing is lean and straightforward, and like many of the greats who employ such an approach (though important to note that Mailer wrote much denser prose in some of his other works), there is so much more here than this kind of style might initially lead you to believe.


Shot in the Heart


It is perplexing that a man could throw his life away for such meaningless and horrible crimes. After finishing the book, you are no closer to understanding why Gilmore chose to randomly destroy so many lives. The only defense that Gilmore ever offers is this written response to a question from Schiller and Farrell submitted via Gilmore's lawyers:
I never felt so terrible as I did in that week before I was arrested. I had lost Nicole. It hurts so fucking bad that it was becoming physical—I mean I couldn't hardly walk, I couldn't sleep I didn't hardly eat, I couldn't drown it. Booze didnt' even dull it. A heavy hurt and loss. It got worse every day. I could feel it in my heart... I could feel the ache in my bones. I had to go on automatic to get thru the day.
And it grew into a calm rage.
And I opened the gate and let it out.
But it wasn't enough.
It would have gone on and on.
More Jenkins [his name was actually Jensen, but in this written answer to a question and in numerous other ones, Gilmore misspells it], more Bushnells.
Lord...
It didn't make any sense—

At least this is more than the "I don't know" Gilmore usually offered up. In essence, his version of a hissy fit was murdering innocent people. And so, regardless of whether you are for or against capital punishment, it's hard to feel any remorse as the bullets rip through Gilmore's heart and deliver him into eternity.

Though the conclusion of the book is no surprise, the impending execution of Gilmore as it plays out in the book is as full of tension as if it were taking place today. You will find it hard not to at least give credit to Gilmore for having the conviction to push his desire to the final self-destructive conclusion. For there is little doubt that, with a word, Gilmore could have set the appeal process in motion and had his sentence reduced to life in prison. The execution itself is surreal, a combination of sick, exhilarated spectators and apparently last-minute considerations that saw an old desk in which Gilmore was strapped to, and a seedy, rancid old mattress placed behind him to absorb the bullets that tore through his heart.

Regardless of how you feel about Gary Gilmore, once he has been executed, due to the power of this book, you feel that a strange force has left the world.

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