Death for Sale

The Executioner's Song

by Norman Mailer
Little, Brown, 1,056 pp., $16.95

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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