Norman Mailer’s best work.
Actually, the only work of his I’ve ever thought was worth the time. A painstakingly reported, and near perfectly executed, telling of the life of Gary Gilmore, the troubled drifter who was the first person to be executed in the United States after the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.
Also the book that brought my wife and I together.
But first, the book, then our story.
Executioners Song is broken into two parts, the story of Gilmore’s life leading up to and including the murders of two men in Utah. Mailer and his team interviewed scores of family members and friends of both Gilmore and the victims. The book gives as complete a picture of the man as I think it’s possible to give. Mailer tells of his childhood, his probable mental illness, and his repeated incarceration in a way that is both dispassionate and (I think because of its cold reporting style) deeply haunting. While Gilmore remains unknowable, you feel that Mailer did all he could to flesh out the man’s story.
The second half focuses on Gilmore’s trial. His decision to accept the death penalty (and request death by firing squad) and the lawyers and activists who tried to overturn his sentence anyway, despite Gilmore’s own wishes. I’m a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and I don’t believe Gilmore had a right to have the state kill him, but this section is fraught with ethical and moral concerns and just as well reported as the first half. When I read this in my mid-twenties, I remember staying up late to finish this section, knowing, of course, how it all turns out, but still unable to put the book down.
I’ve remained a bit obsessed with the book since then (as have many other, Matthew Barney relies on it in his Cremaster cycle). Years later, in 2006, when I went to law school and set up a Facebook account, I listed it as one of my favorite books… and so did a gorgeous redhead from New York City who sat near me in contracts class. We had friends in common, and occasionally sat together for lunch, but one of the first real substantive conversation I remember having with E (over g-chat of course), was about this book. She’d written about it in undergrad, and we traded thoughts. She, being smarter than I, had grasped not just the socio-political aspects of the book (death penalty, ethics, mental illness, the nature of reporting) but also the way it functioned as literature, how it hung together technically, and why it worked so well.
I was impressed, and I remain so today, both of this excellent book, and the woman who I would go on to marry and raise two kids with. Norman Mailer was a son of a bitch who did a lot of damage in this world. And Gary Gilmore was a disturbed man, and a murder, who the state killed. The story here is a tragic one. But I’m grateful it gave E and me our first opportunity to connect. That’s something.