Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Executioner's Song (1979)

With this very long and deeply researched true-crime tome Norman Mailer embarked on the last major phase of his writing career, evincing a preternatural comfort with lengthy and lovingly labored work. We met Mailer first as the latter-day acolyte of Ernest Hemingway, a self-serious novelist. Then, with Advertisements for Myself, he reinvented himself as an impish if erudite (or, if we must, "erudite") journalist, with an ego the size of a planet bigger than Earth. Now he strips away the self-conscious mocking tone in favor of plainspoken language that stretches miles to horizons. Indeed, the primary division of The Executioner's Song is into "Western Voices" and "Eastern Voices," the two halves of the story of the last nine months of Gary Gilmore's life, which Mailer straddles like a continent. Now first things first. One of the book's most impressive features is the research, and the great majority of that was done or overseen by Lawrence Schiller, who deserves co-credit for this book. He amassed tens of thousands of the words that appear here in interview transcriptions. What is most amazing about this book is how thoroughly its characters inhabit the story, and how absent is Mailer's voice. You can still feel it there in the structure and choice of details, but I'm not sure you'd notice it if you'd never read him before. As Dave Eggers says in a 2012 introduction, The Executioner's Song is the fastest 1,000-page read you're ever likely to encounter. And I think that's true independent of how much you know or care about the Gary Gilmore case—which, among other things, returned the death penalty to the US after a 10-year moratorium. For a thousand pages, Mailer carefully curates Schiller's massive stores, dropping sentence after sentence with speech so true the words often resonate like music. I'm not inclined today to like Gary Gilmore as much as those involved in his life and this project seem to, including both Schiller and Mailer, but even that doesn't dim the power of this wild and epic tale. I'm sure it's mostly Mailer who makes it sing, as he would go on to write more books with similar strategies of scope: long narratives of simple language, arguably coming full circle back to Papa. Approximately here is where Mailer finally started to realize his own dearest lifelong ambitions.

In case it's not at the library.

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