Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Executioner's Song

Clocking in at a hefty 1,050 pages of both non-fiction and life that will not be returned to me, it's sort of a waste to not talk about this book. It's also sort of a waste because it's an excellent book.

The Executioner's Song is probably categorized best as a "new journalism" book. Constructed from thousands of hours of interviews with hundreds of people, it tells the tale of Gary Mark Gilmore, a man who spent most of his life behind bars, was released, fell in love, murdered two people, was sentenced to death and was then almost forbidden to die after he asked that he simply be executed on schedule and without appeal.

The book begins with his parole, follows his non-adjustment to life outside, his love affair, his murders and then ends after his death. (This isn't a spoiler, by the way. At the time the book was written, everyone in America knew who Gilmore was and what happened to him.) Gilmore is a fascinating main character. He's a career thief, a violent ex-con, a charming and bright autodidact, a painter and an amateur poet.

The book is as much a character study as it is an indictment of the American penal system. Gilmore, for all intents and purposes, should be "reformed." Yet what the reader finds is a man so malformed by prison that fundamental aspects of being a free man are absolutely alien and unimaginable to him. Further, the book is also a meditation on capital punishment. Gilmore's execution came at the end of an eleven-year moratorium on executions in the United States. As such, executing Gary Gilmore said something, legally, about what America was.

All of this is pretty pedantic, but I think the book succeeds overall in not lecturing people. The narration is third-person omniscient and in the past tense. Author Norman Mailer reports without editorializing, at least not in a way easily detectible within the progression of the story. When prison "reformation" is discussed or lambasted, it's done by the people who were involved. Critiques of the death penalty sound from the ACLU lawyers who sought to stay Gilmore's execution. Praise and ridicule of the media that sought to capitalize on Gilmore's crimes by making them famous comes from those who were in the media's eye or working as journalists at the time.

Despite its enormity, the book is actually a well-paced and entertaining read. If you can make it through the first hundred pages, you'll probably finish the book. The first 500 are devoted to Gilmore's release, love affair, work, crimes and trial. The last 500 are devoted to the media frenzy, spin, "exclusive rights" deals and legal wrangling over his death. The book intensifies in pace with each hundred pages or so, and the second half almost reads as a sprint to a very ghoulish finish line.

The flaws in the book are limited but important. The first one is length. This is a very good 1,050-page book, but it's hard not to wonder how much better it could have been at even 950. Exhaustive detail about the lives of all the protagonists can be interesting but not for every person involved. While it's nice to know that Gilmore's mom was a Mormon who left home to be with a man and who also told her family that a mountain near their house was "her mountain," it's not really that important. It hardly illuminates her relationship with Gary. Details like this give the reader pause and make him wonder, despite the book's pleasures, whether everything is really leading somewhere.

Similarly, it's nice to know the backgrounds of his various attorneys, but you don't really need to know anecdotes about when they played college ball. It has zero bearing on their relationship to Gary and instead seems like Mailer just pointing out to the reader, "By the way, I know everything about everyone in this book, and I could tell you even more than this, but instead I'll just leave you these few extraneous details to let you know how much more I could tell you." The 100 pages devoted to that stuff could be removed, and it wouldn't take even a shade away from the dimensions of Gilmore's character.

The second problem is accuracy. Mailer perhaps rightly — and certainly cagily — doesn't mention it until the afterword, but there is a lot of interpolation going on in this book. Though there are tens of thousands of hours of interviews to rely on, not to mention the thousands of pages that Gilmore wrote to his girlfriend, people just basically forget when and where stuff happened. You don't know at the beginning just how much Mailer guesses his way through all of this. Worse, he excises portions of newspaper articles and transposes parts of interviews and letters in order to "avoid repetition" and make for "more cohesion." But all the same, you can't really be sure what's done for artistry's sake and what's done for the truth's sake. Mailer doesn't editorialize with his narrator's voice, but how much editorializing was done with the arrangement and presentation of the facts and "what people could remember"? I'd like to think that he'd be above petty axe-grinding when he compiled his facts, but everyone has his weaknesses.

The Executioner's Song is far more entertaining than any "serious" and "huge" book has any right to be. Though it is journalism, you could easily imagine this book succeeding as a novel. In a way, the journalistic aspects melt so effectively into the background that one can read this as a novel. That aspect and the troubles related to the veracity of the reporting probably explain why the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Point taken off for length, a sometimes overbearing devotion to background details and potential monkeying with "the record." Recommended to law wonks, journalism wonks, true crime wonks and sociology wonks. Not recommended to people who don't dig the long book, anyone looking for gory details.