Wednesday, 8 March 2006

Review: The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer (1979)

Gary Gilmore - image from Getty Images
The fictitious account of the downfall and execution of Gary Mark Gilmore — “the first judicial homicide in the United States for ten years”, according to Simon Petch of Sydney University — is highly detailed and very entertaining. The 10-year delay between executions is presumably why these murders were singled out for this kind of treatment by Mailer, rather than any other. The Gilmore trial must have attracted a lot of publicity in its time, and drawn Mailer because of its topicality and the pathos of the First-Degree Murder charge. A killer with no defence who deliberately courts death. But he’s a killer none the less.

The book’s 1056 pages add significantly to the debate that apparently emerged during and after his execution. They contain exhaustive details about all those who were associated with the convicted thief and murderer, from such characters as Val J. Conlin, the man he bought his cars — a Mustang and a white truck — from, and all the past boyfriends and the two husbands of his girlfriend Nicole Baker — including Jim Hampton, Jim Barrett, Kip Eberhardt, Steve Hudson, Joe Bob Sears and Tom Fong — who meets Gary when she is twenty years old. In fact, Nicole’s story is given almost as much attention as Gary’s. The Afterword states that Nicole’s cooperation was critical in fictionalising the story. Anyone whose life touches Gary’s is included at some point, providing a more than satisfactory rendition of the intricacies of his slow deterioration from a hopeful ex-con to repeat criminal.

But Gary Gilmore is certainly not a pleasant person to know. We can feel from the beginning how the flaws in his character precipitate his decline into criminality once more. At the beginning we know nothing about his past crimes or his time in gaol, but we know more than enough about his tastes, his drinking, his petty thievery, his way of dealing with people, his violence. By page 168 he’s already been in two fights. He likes to arm-wrestle, he likes to test himself in masculine ways against the world. He is vain and proud, and holds grudges. To some extent, he tries to apply the brakes to his redescent into crime, but there’s no way to stop an avalanche, and we get to see it’s progress in slow-motion, step by step, argument by argument, folly by folly, by tiny degrees as he slips into old habits and down the slippery slope.

This is more than just a cliché, it’s an observable process that we, the readers, participate in, in graphic detail. It may be fiction, but it is well-researched and the consequences of the actions taken by Gary and others, significantly those of young Nicole, ring true to life. Nicole is no saint, and her antics have almost as unhappy consequences as those of her boyfriend.

The method Mailer uses to convey his story is interesting. Instead of an uninterrupted narrative, he has chosen to write short, discrete passages — you can hardly call them sections — that cumulatively provide the story with its substance. This allows Mailer to give the facts in the order in which they happened without concerning himself too much with intra-narrative consistency. He can whip out a passage to portray a scene and then switch rapidly to the next without worrying about tying the passages together organically. It is a method that serves him very well, and admirably suits this type of semi-fictitious narrative.

While it seems that Nicole is Gary’s girl, there’s a lot of goings-on in her life. Her ex-lover Barrett gives his view of Gilmore:

Barrett’s impression was that here was one more old scroungy dude. He didn’t look right. More bad taste! He was wearing cutoffs and his legs were too white. Gilmore looked a lot older than her. Barrett didn’t feel hurt or anything, just kind of disgust, you know, like I don’t believe this.

This kind of sharp delivery is typical of the book. Short, telling phrases in dry, matter-of-fact sentences or in the contemporary demotic of the characters. The attention to detail conveys a rich experience, with a journalistic quality that is quite gripping. The arrest, for example, is conveyed via multiple focalisations — through the eyes of multiple characters — so that you have a complete picture of all the salient people and their roles in the arrest. Brenda, Gary’s cousin, is actively involved in guiding the police to Gary, leading to his arrest on the road. Brenda had been the first person to meet him at the airport after his release from gaol, having corresponded with him for a time, and she feels doubly responsible for the situation:

Toby Bath called Brenda. “We’ve got him,” he told her. “Is he okay?” asked Brenda. “Yes,” said Toby, “he’s fine.” “Anybody else get hurt?” asked Brenda. “Nope, nobody got hurt. Did a good clean job.” “Thank God,” said Brenda. She had never been in a more shattered state. She couldn’t even cry. “Oh,” she said. “Gary’s going to hate me. He’s not too happy with me anyways. But now he’s going to hate me.” She was more worried about that than anything.

After the arrest we are introduced to his mother. We now learn more about Gary’s past. We learn of the hopeless attempts by the defence attorneys to find mitigating circumstances. He won’t allow them to call Nicole as a defence witness, saying that he doesn’t want her to testify. They had broken up in the week before he went on his two-day rampage, and that may have contributed toward a disordered state of mind. But was he disordered? No psychiatrist the defence attorneys talk with thinks so. Meanwhile, Gary writes pathetic letters to Nicole trying to tell her how he is being hurt by her infidelity. The pathos of his situation is balanced against the real fact that he is incorrigible, and this perceived balance causes us to be curious, not as to how he would behave if he were let off with life imprisonment, but to know exactly what he will say when the final punch arrives, as we know it does.

The build up to the dénouement is painstaking, and includes all the court proceedings. This time through Nicole’s eyes:

She thought the first day of the trial would be the whole trial, but instead, the first day was spent picking a jury. There weren’t any witnesses called. It was just one long dull stretch and she didn’t even get to speak to Gary until the second recess when they let her sit on the other side of the railing from him. All of a sudden, he brought up the letter she had written a week before, the one where she told him she would rather be dead than cause him pain by being with other men. Now, out of nowhere, he was nasty about it. “You talk about dying, but it’s just words, baby,” he said, and gave her a look as if to say she was safe on her side of the fence.

Gary’s insistence on this point, not wanting to think about Nicole with other men, is particularly distasteful and becomes obscene as events unfold. This type of thinking is typical of Gary — small-minded and paternalistic. The eulogies given by those who knew him, at the end of the book, just don’t stand up to the reality of Gary as we come to know him. Mailer is very successful in portraying this imbalance because of the level of detail adhered to throughout. We see most of what Gary thinks, and it’s not pleasant. He’s a narrow-minded, vindictive, possessive person who picks fights rather than thinks things through simply because he doesn’t know how to control himself.

But Nicole does continue to sleep around:

She never would let herself get into anything again that would make her feel this uneasy personally. One of these days, on one of her visits, Gary might look her in the eye and ask if she had made it with anybody. She did not know if she could tell him the truth. She didn’t want to think of the damage it would do inside to him and to her if she actually lied point-blank while looking right into his face. She had enough worms right now.

The book, so long and detailed, stands up under scrutiny. Even after putting this massive tome down for a week and then picking it up again, it’s still a gripping read. A full-blown thriller and a drama with a life of its own.

Doctor Woods disgusted [Nicole]. She would ask him innocent things, like, “Do I have to eat all you give me, every meal?” and he would look at her like you could lose your ass giving a solid reply. She thought he was a great pussy. This big, good-looking guy who would never commit himself.

The drama is underplayed, and this adds to the book’s appeal:

Whereas when Gary would be brought out into the visiting room to meet his lawyer or uncle, they would take him down the long main corridor of maximum from which shorter corridors led off at right angles to the one-story cell blocks. At such times, as a precaution against escape, no other inmate would be in the main corridor. While Gary walked along, passing the barred gate to each cell block, the prisoners would see him coming, and call out, “Hey, Gary,” or “Hang in there.”
  “Stay with it,” they would yell.

Mailer’s style changes depending on the subject-matter. Here he is in novelistic mode, showing that he can write long sentences when it’s necessary. Farrell is the writer Schiller — Gary’s publicist — has hired to do his pieces:

Farrell had to be glad the eyes had been kept for him. He needed something nourishing in the marrow, for he had been discovering an awful lot about Gilmore that was not so good. Rereading the interviews and letters, Farrell began to mark the transcripts with different-colored inks to underline each separate motif in Gilmore’s replies, and before he was done, he got twenty-seven poses. Barry had begun to spot racist Gary and Country-and-Western Gary, poetic Gary, artist-manqué Gary, macho Gary, self-destructive Gary, Karma County Gary, Texas Gary, and Gary the killer Irishman. Awfully prevalent lately was Gilmore the movie star, awfully shit-kicking large-minded aw-shucks.

One irritation the book produces, however: throughout the book Mailer has referred to the American Civil Liberties Union by the acronym ACLU. Finally, on page 965, he spells it out. It is a great relief to finally discover what ACLU means. But this is typical. Throughout, Mailer refers to people, refers to them often by their first names only, and even if the full name is used, you’ve forgotten who they are, so the forces at play are often disguised by this shorthand. The novel is speedy and precise, but frequently too precise.


Nicole said...

Why does this event still matter to anyone?
What could you possibly hope to do (...and to what significance?) with so much faulty information?
There never was or will be a person in this world besides me an' God that ever had a clue who Gary Gilmore was. You're all so far off the mark -- -and you wonder why i dont waste my words talkin' anymore.
Mailer you suck at comprehending Gary and Nicole. I told you Gary would Never call me a cunt
Tommy Lee you actually "won" something for that role?? Ah yea, nobody actually knew Gary.
Rosanna I remember you said you played it the way they made ya..yet ...I mean...after all that time we spent together??
Larry Schiller huh. I will always love you and hate you.
Mikal. The tragedy shall never overcome what it once began.
Dr. Woods don't believe that bullshit. You were my favorite Doc. I've always been able to appreciate
an intelligent, intuitive gentleman. Still--Gary misled you.

Nicole said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matthew da Silva said...

I guess Mailer made this into a cause celebre. Journalists always want to know more than people want to tell. And they ask questions you might not like.

But a 'no comment' is often perceived by the reader as an admission of guilt.

Mailer certainly wanted to make money from the book, there's no question. Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) inspired him, I'm sure.

Nevertheless, Gary's story continues to interest thousands of people. This post on my blog is probably one of the most popular.

Whether their interest is due to the book or something else, I cannot say.

If you are refusing to talk because you don't trust (1) the media or (2) the public, your words will be lost when you die. The only way to correct any mistakes is to talk to a writer and get your words published.

The C.C. said...

it would be great to hear nicole's story. I'm reading this book for the 2nd or 3rd time, and each time, i'm always left hanging... how did nicole end up? i know there will always be a hole where gary was that could never be filled, but i'm still very curious.

Anonymous said...


I see you have made posts here.If your out there, I'd really love to hear what happend in your own words. I dont think these movies and books written by someone else could possibly express your truth. not sure if this is ok to leave on here, but if you see this post and would like to chat, email me at

lynn said...

What fasinates me the most is there are no pictures of Nicole Baker Barrett that I can access I feel sad you had to go through losing your Love even though I am sure you get Why some people wanted him to die I believe in Life without Parole when found Guilty.

Anonymous said...

Nicole if that was really you, i wanna say you are very lucky and very unlucky at the same time. A guy truly loved u to the depths of his heart YET u lost him...its very sad...just finished the book and been crying...just wish he had not done wat he did and u were happy with him in this world..Lynn there is a documentry on Gary Gimore on YouTube and in the 2nd or 3rd Clip they have showed Nicole interview and picture...She was a very beautiful girl..I will now read book by Mikal Gilmore Shot in the heart....just feeling so sad for Gary..he was a product of dysfunctional family...his artwork was great which were shown on the documentry.
Nicole I really wanna know how you are doing now? there is not enough on you on net book u are one of the main person after please do tell us about you...