Sunday, January 3, 2010

Thoughts On: The Executioner's Song - Part 1

(A few months ago now) I finally got around to finishing Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, an epic non-fiction book about the crime, trial, and execution of Gary Gilmore. Gilmore was executed in 1977 in the state of Utah, the first man to be executed in the US after a several-year moratorium on the death penalty.

Because this book is so long and there are many things I want to talk about, I've decided to divide these blog entries into two parts. This first part will consist, more or less, of my personal book review of TES. The second part of this entry will deal specifically with how I read this book as a non-fiction writer. The second half of the book deals with the media frenzy that begins with Gilmore's death sentence, and from there, the mad scramble of several writers, journalists, and movie producers vying to win the exclusive rights to Gary Gilmore's life story. In addition to a number of ethical and legal dilemmas that emerge from said scramble, a number of situations regarding the dilemmas specific to writing non-fiction also emerge.

But we begin with my stupid little book review.

The single most impressive aspect of TES is, of course, the sheer hugeness of it. Just to hold the book in your hands and think about reading it is intimidating - it's heavy, it's wide, and the font is small.

And the book isn't just physically enormous - it also contains a cast of characters that gives the Old Testament a run for its money. To accommodate so many characters, the story is told in a roaming third-person. And when I say roaming, I mean roaming.

It would take me several days just to go through TES and list all the different third-person perspectives from which Mailer writes. Right off the top of my head, I can think of Gary; his girlfriend Nicole; relatives Brenda, April, Vern, and Ida; mother Bessie; victims Benny Bushnell and Max Jensen; their wives; Gilmore's first defense lawyers; and the prosecuting attorneys - and that only covers about a third of the characters in the first half of the book.

At the end of my copy of the book, Mailer writes a brief (and I use the term "brief" loosely here) notes section in which he names over 100 people with whom he conducted interviews. Those countless hours of interviews - in addition to the thousands of pages of letters that Gary and Nicole wrote to each other, in addition to what must have been a small library's worth of legal documents, notes, and memos - served as the background material from which Mailer wrote the 1050 pages of TES.

I'll put that into perspective using an example from my own life. To write my thesis, I compiled 15 total hours of interviews with about a half-dozen people and collected a pile of perhaps 20 newspaper articles. I felt overwhelmed by that amount of background material. It took me nine months to carve that material into 50 pages of meaningful, coherent prose. When I think of tackling a project the size of TES, I feel the way a go-kart racer must feel at the thought of piloting a rocketship to the moon. It's simply way beyond the bounds of my capabilities.

But hugeness doesn't necessarily mean good. So, is it good?

As those of you who know me personally are probably aware, my favorite book of all-time is Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which, like TES, also deals with the inner workings of cold-blooded killers, their crime, their ensuing arrests, trial, and executions. Even though the respective styles of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote are vastly different, I couldn't help but almost constantly compare these two books in my head while reading TES.

This lead me to have some difficulty in enjoying TES. As a reader, on a sentence-level basis, Capote is simply much, much more pleasurable to read than Mailer. Consider the following excerpt from In Cold Blood:
But the big question, and the source of heartache, was what to do with his much-loved memorabilia - the two huge boxes heavy with books and maps, yellowing letters, song lyrics, poems, and unusual souvenirs (suspenders and a belt fabricated from the skins of Nevada rattlers he himself had slain; an erotic netsuke bought in Kyoto; a petrified dwarf tree, also from Japan; the foot of an Alaskan bear). Probably the best solution - at least, the best Perry could devise - was to leave the stuff with "Jesus." The "Jesus" he had in mind tended bar in a cafe across the street from the hotel, and was, Perry thought, muy simpatico, definitely someone he could trust to return the boxes on demand. (He intended to send for them as soon as he had a "fixed address.")

I think this particular quotation displays what's really great about In Cold Blood. Even though this is a somewhat random paragraph from the 125th page of the book, I feel confident quoting it without giving you any background information. You don't need my commentary to understand the character's current dilemma (what to do with a cumbersome, but meaningful box of personal belongings); you don't need me to explain the type of person that this character is (he has traveled to Japan and Alaska, and has the aptitude to slay rattlesnakes); and you don't need me to tell you what he ultimately decides to do with the box.

Now consider a similar excerpt from TES. A lawyer named Amsterdam is making calls to Gary Gilmore's mother and youngest brother:

He had been, he said, considerably affected by that conversation. Bessie Gilmore (Gary's mother) had impressed him as a person of great strength who was in great pain. One had to respect the spiritual and psychic stress of this ungodly situation. He told Mikal that he believed his mother would welcome a little help, but was not yet certain she wanted to assert herself in Gary's case. So she had asked him to discuss it with her youngest son.

Mikal (Gary's brother) knew this disposition was accurate, since Bessie had told him much the same, although with some suspiciousness of strangers calling. In turn, Mikal spoke to Amsterdam of his concern that people interested in abolishing capital punishment might not care about Gary so much as they were looking for an ideological ax to grind.
Guh. If you can explain to me, on first read, just what is going on in these paragraphs, I applaud you. The pages of TES are filled with paragraphs like these, especially the second half, which gives very intricate details regarding the legal maneuvers of the both the people trying to condemn Gary and those trying to save him. Lawyer A makes a phone call to Lawyer B, which leads him to make a meeting with Attorney General C, and together they write Legal Document X to take before Judge Y in Circuit Court Z.

Of course, comparing the two styles of prose is unfair, if for no other reason than, at just over 1,000 pages, TES is nearly three times as long as In Cold Blood. Not only that, but it took Capote almost 8 years to write In Cold Blood, whereas Mailer wrote TES in less than three. I shouldn't expect the same attention to sentence-level writing in TES. So how else can I judge the overall quality of TES?

A friend once argued to me that it isn't the prose that makes In Cold Blood so good. What makes it good is the fact that, right from the opening scene, Capote tells us exactly how the story ends - the Clutter family and (eventually) their two killers all die. Still, we are compelled to read the book from beginning to end. Why? My friend argued that Capote makes us want to know exactly what it was like at the moment of the killing of the Clutter family. Those are the details he withholds from us. The anticipation of that brutal moment is what makes us keep reading (which is rather disturbing to think about).

Mailer wrote TES using a very similar narrative arc. The book was released in 1979, just two years after Gilmore was executed. Gilmore's trial and execution had been major national and international news. Anybody who read TES in 1979 or 1980 already knew the outcome - so why read it?

Consider: TES is split into two halves. The first half begins nine months before Gilmore's execution, when he is released from prison in Marion, Illinois, and goes to live with relatives in Utah. This first half ends after he commits two murders and is sentenced to die. The second half begins just after the sentencing and ends soon after Gary is executed. TES is a great book because Mailer manages to pull off what Capote pulled off, twice.

The first half of TES begins with optimism, as Gary's relatives invite him into their lives. All along, we know their optimism is futile. We know that the disaster will come, and all through those first 500 pages, all we want to know is what the moment is like when Gary goes too far. What makes Mailer's work so spectacular is that when the moment finally arrives, when Gary kills his two victims, it is actually surprising, even though we can see it coming from 500 pages away.

The second half plays out similarly. Gary's legal situation goes back and forth as various groups fight to commute his death sentence while others fight to push it through. When Gary is finally executed, as a reader, I could hardly believe it, even though I knew it would happen all along. And, as horrible as it sounds to say it, the most masterful scene in the whole book - what I'd say is easily the book's "best" moment - is the moment when Gary is finally executed, simply because, as a reader, I could not believe he was dead. We know it's going to happen and it's going to happen and it's going to happen and then it does, and again, it's almost impossible to believe.

So, is it good? Yes, and more. That being said, is this a book for everybody? Absolutely not. In fact, as highly as I think of it, I doubt that I'll ever read it again. On the other hand, I know that I will read In Cold Blood multiple times within the next decade. TES is simply too much work. But I will always be humbled by Mailer's ability to so completely surprise me, twice, by revealing information I already knew.

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