Critical Mass

Eleven Things You Need to Know About Executioner’s Song

By Marc Weingarten

The following post from NBCC member Marc Weingarten concludes the In Retrospect series look back at Norman Mailer and “Executioner's Song,” his 1979 nonfiction novel which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. 

1) When Norman Mailer in the late 70’s embarked on the work that would turn into The Executioner’s Song, he really didn’t have any idea where the project might take him. This book wasn’t supposed to be one of those epoch-defining projects that was going to clean out the marrow of the body politic, a book that would give the Nobel committee no choice but to nominate him for the prize. At this point, Mailer was taking on quite a bit of work for-hire, and he had already felt like a whore for writing Marilyn, the coffee table book about Marilyn Monroe for which he had been paid the (then) princely sum of $50,000. That book had caused no small source of embarrassment for him. When Time magazine published a cover photo of Mailer’s picture superimposed over the naked movie star, he had turned to his collaborator Lawrence Schiller and exclaimed, “Now I’ll never win the Nobel prize.”

2) Mailer had Larry Schiller to thank for the quick money gigs, but without Schiller, one of Mailer’s greatest books wouldn’t have been written. Schiller was a tireless researcher with big ideas for turning his sweat equity into real money, but even he admitted that he wasn’t the greatest writer. He needed others to turn his notions into gold.

3)When Gary Gilmore was awaiting trial for the murder of two men in Provo, Utah in 1976, Schiller pounced. He high-tailed it down there with a tape recorder and fistfuls of cash. He talked to Gilmore, his girlfriend Nicole, family members, the cops, the prosecution and the defense attorneys – just about everyone who had come into contact with Gilmore. He had many hundreds of hours of tape transcripts, but no organizing principle, no way to shape it into a coherent narrative.

4)Mailer entered into an agreement with Schiller, and the two sold the book to Little, Brown for $25,000. Warner books bought the paperback rights for $500,000. A movie deal was also brokered.

5)It’s a bad book if you really want to know what Mailer is all about as a writer and a thinker. With The Executioner’s Song, Mailer had something to prove – he wanted to invert his complex style into something so plain a child could parse it. He also wanted to silence the critics who felt that Mailer could write only one way, in a self-referential rococo sprint. By eliminating the complex syntax, the serpentine sentence structure, the recondite vocabulary, Mailer had finally gotten as close to his hero Hemingway as he had ever come: Conveying the anguish of being a man without resorting to anguished language.

6)It’s a good book if you want to understand one of the major preoccupations of Mailer’s career – how violence can be bound up with an impulse to make whole a fractured personality. Gary Gilmore is a man who has been made into an animal (or the animal begat the man – it’s for the reader to decide), having spent most of his adult life in jail. The release of his violent energies is an eruption of displaced passion from a man who can’t logically compartmentalize those passions. The genius of the book is that Mailer can have us believe that a killer is also a complex and nuanced man worthy of our attention across 1,000 pages.

7) It is better than In Cold Blood. Mailer had the goods on Gilmore on just about every aspect of his life, thanks to Larry Schiller, and that included a pile of correspondence that Gilmore wrote to Nicole while he was incarcerated. So Mailer presents another paradox – a killer who is a sensitive, courtly and solicitous lover, capable of great depths of feeling. These letters are so beautiful that it’s remarkable to think Mailer didn’t have any hand in them. Capote had Dick and Perry, but Mailer had a riveting love story, and that makes The Executioner’s Song a superior book

8)Mailer leaves himself out of it, for the most part. Instead Larry Schiller is the intrepid reporter, but his fact-gaterhing is tainted by self-interest. Schiller winds up compromising himself, but without any remorse. He offers money to potential subjects who might talk about Gilmore and Nicole, he tries to broker a sale of Gilmore’s letters, he enters into an agreement with a local journalist in order to sniff out government information. By writing about all of this at great length, Mailer is absolutely prescient in describing the sick co-dependency between the press and the news stories they’re supposed to be covering, but are in fact manipulating.

9)Gilmore wants to be executed. That’s the great narrative driver in the book, even though we know all of this before we even crack the book’s spine. It doesn’t matter. Mailer devotes hundreds of pages to the legal contortions that Federal and State lawmakers endure in order to ensure due process. This stuff is as gripping as any crime novel procedural by Scott Turow or anyone else. How many stays of execution are recounted in The Executioner’s Song? I lost track when I first read it. Can’t a man who has been sentenced to die comply with the order if he so chooses? Apparently not. Is the legal system in this country dysfunctional? Apparently so.

10) To process hundreds of hours of interviews, scores of documents, intricate and intimate details of plot and chronology into a coherent narrative is a brilliant feat of reportage. To bring Gary Gilmore back from the dead as a divided soul worthy of a Dostoevsky novel is a literary achievement of the first order.


–Marc Weingarten