The Executioner’s Song
Lately we have been seeing more of these “true life” novels, as Norman Mailer has termed this one about Gary Gilmore, the Utah killer who insisted upon being executed. Perhaps it’s not so much because truth is stranger than fiction as because our interest in subjectivity has reached a point where no one but old nannies observes a distinction. Or maybe it’s just a spinoff from the mini-cassette. All novels are based on life, of course, and if they aren’t we don’t like them, but some are based on history as well, and then it seems easier for some reason to accept ancient history, and speeches from the mouth of Napoleon, than from real people who are still alive. Different conventions seem to apply, nagging questions of veracity intrude. However powerful one finds this book, there are reservations one may feel about the genre and about its social implications—if only what to make of the literary ambulance-chasing that the true-life novel encourages.
Perhaps the contradictions embodied in the idea of true-life fiction reflect Mailer’s ambivalence about whether to take a journalistic or novelistic direction with this fascinating material, involving as it does both dramatic elements of love and death and matters of worldly significance. Gilmore’s assertion of his right to have the death sentence carried out and the legal bases of efforts to save him, the evident failure of the penal system to do anything for or with him in his nineteen years of prison, or to protect his victims from him either, the role in the story of Mormonism and Utah history—these and many other matters would repay the attention of a journalist of Mailer’s penetration and energy. On the other hand, Gilmore’s story partakes something (too little, it turns out) of popular literary traditions about tragic lovers and defiant condemned men (“My name is Samuel Hall / And I hate you one and all / Damn your eyes”), cowboys, On the Road types, Tobacco Road types which would attract any novelist, especially one with Mailer’s romantic turn of mind.
One can hardly bear to think of the real facts of Gary Gilmore’s life—such a sad dismal misery to himself and others, such a waste of a smart and funny and somehow doomed man. His mother Bessie, looking at him as a little boy, feared he would grow up to be executed—surely not the usual form of maternal premonition. He was put in prison over half his life, beginning in junior high school, and apart from his personality disorder, whatever it was, life in prison didn’t teach him to live in the real world. Let loose, he tried hard to be a real person, even walked to work in the snow, but his hats were funny, he pilfered in the supermarket, he just couldn’t get things together. Could anything have helped Gilmore or saved his victims? Obviously not prison psychiatry, which had turned him into a drug-dependent mess at the time of his last parole. (And the judgment of other doctors later of the sanity of someone so obviously crazy points up yet again, if more examples were needed, how these definitions and these doctors just aren’t working out.)
Then there’s the bleak and pitiful life of Nicole Baker, Gary’s friend. Married first at fourteen, she was nineteen years old when they met, had been divorced twice, had two kids, had been in and out of mental hospitals since the age of thirteen. Since she was five, when she was made to “rub peepees” by “Uncle Lee,” poor Nicole had been trying to give everyone everything they wanted—“Nicole was really hung up on the guy even when he began to hint to her that she would be befriending him if she would fuck his friends, you know.” She had just passed her time putting out and getting knocked around and doing as she was told. She would stick out her ankle for a tattoo (“Gary”) when told, would try suicide when told, talk to the cops about Gary when they asked—infinitely compliant, she would eventually comply with Lawrence Schiller and Mailer and their tape recorders, whence this book.
Gilmore’s history, Nicole’s history are horrifying, sad, moving, and skillfully told in Book One (“Western Voices”) in short, forceful paragraphs with extra spaces between, allowing quick shifts among a welter of interesting characters beginning with Gary’s nice cousin Brenda awaiting the new parolee in Provo, Utah, where his people came from. We meet Uncle Vern, Aunt Ida, victims, cousins, cops, cons and guards, and notably the Baker family. Mostly these are trustful, hapless, well-meaning people whom Mailer wisely neither judges nor sympathizes with. He thereby nearly avoids patronizing them on the one hand and on the other associating them too obviously with his own known pre-occupations with violence, execution, female masochism, and other tough stuff. Technically he keeps out of the book altogether; there is no evident point of view and no comment, only a matter-of-fact tone perfect for the baroque tale it will unfold, and even enough to conceal that here is, of course, a work of selection and inter-pretation, which sees Gilmore as something of a hero from a rough hick culture we are meant to think of as somehow the West, or maybe America after Genet.
The book is written in an apparently simply style—pure tape recorder, it seems at first—and given the fact that no one can make up things better than the things people actually say, this mode of quiet attention seems right. But maybe it’s all made up and Mailer infinitely artful; the text is mined with Mailerisms when you look closely, as when Brenda sees Gary walk in wearing a big white hat that “wouldn’t even have been happy on a black pimp,” or when Nicole gets attention from the fellow inmates of her mental institution by saying “humph” “like she was smelling the finest and most peculiar shit,” to take at random two figures you doubt often occur to Mormon housewives in Provo, Utah. The language mainly fits, convinces, but the voice of Mailer himself, once heard, lingers with strange insistence over the voices of the others, except perhaps that of Gilmore himself.
Then you begin to hear the great parodist in Mailer straining to get out, especially when he’s representing the thoughts of Lawrence Schiller, his colleague and the central consciousness for much of the book. Schiller is given a number of callous, greedy, self-important, and dishonest thoughts and reactions, presented in a mock Hemingwayese perfectly catching his moral pretentiousness and inherently despicable pursuit—“Schiller’s reaction to [Gary’s] second suicide attempt was that Gary had to be a very impatient man. Didn’t want to die because of reincarnation, just out of spite. Had attempted to kill himself to show the world Gary Gilmore was in control. So Schiller lost respect.”
Other bits that might seem tongue-in-cheek on their own seem successfully bleak in context. “Debbie didn’t know about matters outside the house. She knew a lot about plastic pants and disposable diapers and just about anything to do with children in the day-care center. She was terrific with kids and would rather mop her kitchen floor than read.” Nicole “only went with him for a few months before they got married. Two weeks later, she left him. They just couldn’t get along. It was depressing. She felt so bad she soon picked up with another fellow she met in church.”
Sometimes the style sinks to pure research assistant, and little paragraphs which were meant to resonate with significance simply look embarrassed hanging there in the wide white space, and sometimes one misses the witty, trenchant Mailer of other books, and Mailer the wonderful describer. But there are flashes of this Mailer—“Gary sat there like he was grinding bones in his mind.” On the whole the writing is fastidious and, given the lurid material, tasteful. It’s just that you keep wondering which are the true parts.
In part I, we are moved and affected as at the beginning of a familiar play, because we know how it will end. Our response is one not of suspense but of pity as the characters, ignorant of their fates, perform their fateful actions. Mailer draws the large cast inexorably along by brilliantly managing the sequence of events. Gilmore has killed once and is on his way to Ben’s motel—how we long for Debbie to send Ben to the store or something, yet she cannot because she did not, and history is history.
It is finally the fact that all this really happened that moves us most. Thinking about Debbie and Ben is like looking at the photograph of the starving child in the CARE poster. Because that is so serious it demands explanation and reflection that are not forthcoming. Not even a writer of Mailer’s skill can make us suspend our realization of history, can stop us from remembering the world and not this shadow of it. Since this is so, to make fictions of them exploits and trivializes these people at the same time that it may seek to ennoble or project them; in the service of a private (but popular!) mythology it takes over their words and thoughts while they are still around to speak for themselves, leaves them, as it were, without words, and diminishes their humanity.
Unfortunately there’s a Nicole in everybody’s sixth-grade class, lots of Bessie Gilmores with sons in prison. Their lives are too painful to be borne, and the courage with which they bear them is deserving of celebration, and of course accounts of gang-bangs and mothers’ tears are more reliably salable than delicate dramas of principle and legal maneuver that accompanied this first execution in the United States in more than a decade. In getting up the sex and violence, Mailer has only had time to sketch some of the most interesting aspects of Gilmore’s case. There were questions of whether taxpayers’ money could be spent at that time on executions, of whether judicial reviews were adequate, whether the state could abet suicide, and other issues raised by the ACLU and NAACP attorneys for members of Gilmore’s family; there was the adversary relation of the Supreme Court and the state of Utah, the Utah Coalition Against the Death Penalty, student and Protestant and Mormon leaders, the eleventh-hour appeal—all these so harrowing even in outline that one would have liked to know more.
Mailer’s misunderstanding or under-estimation of Mormonism is also a little disappointing; for instance, he makes a lot of Gilmore’s ideas about life after death, without realizing the extent to which these are orthodox Mormon beliefs. On the evidence he has presented, but not, it seems, attended to, the real Provo community is surely odder and more interesting than the macho frontier he has invented. Nicole and Brenda were married at fourteen and sixteen not because they were poverty-culture Lolitas but because of strong Mormon sanctions. Gilmore, the “eternal recidivist,” was, after his last parole in 1976, welcomed home into a coherent and very well meaning community whose innocent ideas about love curing criminal tendencies seem to be shared by all its members. Cousin Brenda gets Gary sprung, Uncle Vern will keep him in line, all kinds of folks—mostly small businessmen—make sure he has a job and money, and lecture him sententiously but sincerely about hard work and earning your keep. When Gary gets into a fight with Pete, Pete only says, “Gary needs help.” Beneath the presentation of dope, sex, and violence one can discern a cohesive if naïve group of people, whose rectitude (Cousin Brenda and others will also aid in Gary’s capture) and sweetness make them no match for the media types we meet in Book Two, “Eastern Voices.”
Book One is a horror story where everyone behaves well; now enter hordes of people sensing a buck to be made out of Gilmore’s refusal to appeal his death sentence, and big money if he gets executed. Into the lives of the sad, consternated people of Provo come reporters, TV people, film people, media lawyers, contracts, names they’ve heard of (David Susskind, Louis Nizer), names they haven’t (“as you will see, I am Lawrence Schiller from ABC television. This is not the time and place, but when the occasion is right, I would appreciate it if you would open my envelope and read it”). Schiller was Mailer’s colleague on Marilyn, and a veteran of other stories—Jack Ruby, Marina Oswald, Susan Atkins—and becomes the protagonist of Book Two.
And once you are in the mind of Schiller, it becomes obvious why Mailer has kept himself out of the narrative. This account of the exploitation of the poor convict and his relatives is so appalling that the author of the end product—the book you are reading—must seem to be innocent of it, must seem not to be writing it at all, let alone making a reported half a million for starters out of it. It is the “carrion bird” Schiller who must seem the bad guy, and Mailer does such a job on him that you would suppose they are now estranged, though if Mailer’s portrait is anywhere near true, Schiller may be too insensitive morally to recognize how loathsome he’s been made to seem. The lies, tricks, and deals are all recounted. The sharpies even con the prison-wise Gilmore, with their sympathetic support for his death wish, and promises that they’ll split with his loved ones their profits from his death. “Who’s going to play me in the movie?” he wonders, only half ironically.
A few decent Utahans try to control all this—the Director of Corrections says, “No movie producer is going to make one dime out of Gilmore. It’s not fair”—but the media have smarter lawyers who get injunctions allowing interviews. Schiller even gets some court testimony sealed so that his rivals cannot overhear Gilmore’s story. Indeed if it weren’t for Gilmore’s evident death wish one might feel that Schiller and his own lawyers were responsible for his death in the way they played to his infantile us-against-them reactions to authority. ” ‘You have a right for it to be over,’ said Schiller, ‘an inalienable right.’ ” Altogether, the instances of Schiller’s cupidity, callousness, and greed are so unbelievable that one asks oneself whether Mailer feels himself to be tarred with the same brush.
Mailer’s creation of a character, Gary Gilmore, is splendid, but in the long run it seems not Gilmore and Mailer but Schiller and Mailer who are congruent sensibilities, projecting on to poor, crazy Gary a code of Hollywood heroism Gary couldn’t care less about. Schiller is petrified of Gary’s rage when he thinks that “The National Enquirer had impugned Gilmore’s honor in death,” and when Gilmore, only worried about getting a phone call through to his girl friend, doesn’t react, Schiller wonders “whether he was qualified, at bottom, to know Gary Gilmore.”
The doomed lovers angle is a projection too. Schiller has worried that Gary might be executed before he has wheedled his whole story out, but when he gets hold of Gary’s letters (against Gary’s wishes) he “began to feel a little security.” Even if Gary got executed next week, “those letters still offered the love story. He not only had the man’s reason for dying but Romeo and Juliet, and life after death. It might even be enough for a screenwriter.” Hence Mailer’s portentousness in Book I: Brenda “was in all wrong sorts the rest of the day. Kept thinking of the tattoo on Nicole’s ankle. Every time she did, her uneasiness returned,” etc. Gary and Nicole were not Romeo and Juliet, of course, just recent acquaintances—Nicole too dim and suggestible, Gary too deranged. It’s just wishful thinking from Mailer and Schiller, or mere venality. And to suggest disappointed love as an explanation for a Gary Gilmore is a somewhat irresponsible oversimplification.
Anyhow, Gary is executed. (Schiller attends but refuses to take extra money for an exclusive on it. “I owe that to whatever I am.”) Now the book, which has taken from Gilmore a scary vitality which is so often also Mailer’s, seems to have a big hole in it. We have liked the revolting Gilmore. Then new horror, as the reader realizes how this book has really come about. With Gary dead, Schiller gets Nicole out of the mental hospital where she and her mother had committed her, and takes them and Nicole’s kids to Malibu, buys them a lot of food, lets them rest up a week or so, and then begins interviewing Nicole, for which she’ll be paid, but to which, Mailer says, she anyway has a commitment “as deep as the beating of her heart,” an opinion somewhat belied by bits of the interviews transcribed here:
Nicole: Larry, I’m trying. I can’t say it, all right? I’m really trying. I can’t. Forget it.
Schiller: I’m not going to forget it. I’m not going to forget it.
Nicole: Okay. Another time.
Schiller: I need to know this time. Not another time.
And so on. Of course Schiller resolutely gets what he wants from this poor dumb girl, just as every other guy always has. “With Nicole he got along. He didn’t have to use tricks that often and it moved him profoundly.” “Given the intimacy of the experience Nicole Baker was willing to communicate to Schiller, and then to me,” Mailer writes, “I had enough narrative wealth from the start to feel encouraged to try for more.” All Nicole’s, all Gary’s sad little secrets—“he had half a hard-on,” or about his false teeth. Of course, maybe it was a comfort to her, or to lonely Mrs. Gilmore in her trailer, or to the others to tell their stories. Gary left his mother $2,000, and so far as one could tell, the Bakers would get $25,000, out of which they’d have to pay lawyers and other expenses. When last heard of, Nicole was drifting in Oregon. You don’t hear if the widows of Gilmore’s victims got anything from anywhere. You’re supposed to rise above wondering what Nicole’s children will make of this book some day.
Of course it’s an extra-literary point, but the folks back home have a saying—“it just doesn’t seem right”—to express moral unease in situations where the letter of the law is probably on the side of the “wrong.” I think it was when it was announced that Son of Sam would write his memoirs that this collective sentiment surfaced somewhere in the form of a bill to make sure that the profits from crimes go to the victims. Maybe that’s going a little too far, but it would be nice to have appendices of disclosure, the kind of accountings that are asked of university stock portfolios to find out if they do business with South Africa. There isn’t really any difference, and people might wish to go without true-life novels the way they went without grapes, if they disapprove of the distribution of the profits.
The author of a true-life novel tries to have it both ways—to improve the dull, invent the spicy parts, leave out the inconvenient things, and not be held accountable for veracity or completeness. Yet he hopes for significance too. Playing neither by the rules of fiction nor by the rules of fact, he is in danger of sinking into facile sensationalism. The handling of Gilmore’s letters is an example here of the inconsistency. Sagaciously edited by a fine writer, they are pretty impressive. Mailer has abridged them “because it seemed fair to show him at his best, not his average.” “One wanted to demonstrate the impact of his mind on Nicole, and that was best done by allowing his brain to have its impact on us.” Yet Nicole presumably read the letters entire. Mailer finds the real Gary Gilmore a good enough writer only at times, but he gets the advantage of Gilmore’s real life death.
No one has mythologized Son of Sam, so fat and creepy. You wonder whether if Gary Gilmore had looked less like a cowboy, this book would have been written. It does have sweep and charity and power; but in the long run it is a kind of socialist-realist ballet, where the redneck killers are recognizable by their bandannas, the nymphos by the “couple of bruises on those juicy thighs,” a cast Mailer has assembled before. He seems to have grafted an Eastern urban dream of the Wild West, complete with sixpacks, CBs, and pickup trucks, onto a conventional paradigm about poverty and child abuse eventuating in anomie and murder. This doesn’t seem to be quite the truth of Utah or Nicole or Gilmore—and Mailer has given us so much of a powerful and absorbing story, one can only wish to know how it really was.
Correction and Clarification February 21, 1980