How Norman Mailer Wrote the Great American Novel

On January 17, 1977, convicted murderer Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad by the state of Utah for the execution type murder of two men, a gas station attendant and the desk clerk at a local motel in Provo Utah, both murders the result of the emotional pain that Gilmore was in as a result of his break-up with his girlfriend, Nicole Barret, a young mother with two young children; Miss Barret having ultimately rejected him due to his chaotic, haphazard behavior obviously brought on by having spent the vast majority of his youth and adult years in reform school and prison, where he had been locked up for various lesser crimes. Soon after the execution, following his trip to Utah, the great writer Norman Mailer wrote his masterpiece, The Executioner’s Song, that in which he provides a vivid account of Gilmore’s stunningly rapid fall from grace.

The story line of the book, which is some 1100 pages long and which takes place from the time Gilmore was paroled in the spring of 1976 until his final reckoning with the firing squad which took his life nine months later, is nothing short of a masterpiece of understated writing; depicting what the late Joan Didion in her review of the book described as the nihilism of this part of the American West, where people often have to live lives without much purpose, trapped halfway between the mountains and the desert, and where potential dread often reaches such proportions that, as Didion puts it, “People get sick for love, think they want to die for love, shoot up the town for love.”

In writing his account of these events, Norman Mailer did something that was completely unexpected by much of the literary community: He stopped being Norman Mailer. That is, in writing a number of his previous books, he often relied heavily on inserting his unique voice, and even his own persona and actual experience into the storyline. The Siege of Chicago, which depicted the climate surrounding the ill-fated Democratic convention of 1968, was written as a first-person account in which Mailer in many ways becomes an actual character in the narrative. As was the case with his previous book, The Armies of the Night, which depicted the storming of the Pentagon in 1967 as part of the anti-war movement protesting American involvement in Vietnam.

The Executioner’s Song, however, was written with an entirely flat affect, and with no traces of Mailer to be found anywhere amidst its pages. Written as a series of paragraphs spatially separated from one another in the context of different chapters, without any sort of commentary by Mailer on the events he is describing, it is the minimalist depiction of the events which are occurring in the lives of all the participants (e.g. friends of Gilmore and Nicole, fellow convicts, members of the legal and judicial community, journalists covering the story at a national level, etc.) which entirely matches the stark environment in which the events surrounding Gilmore’s trial  and execution take place.

Certainly, there have been other books in which the actual style of the writing so thoroughly matches the events which are taking place. One thinks of Ernest Hemingway’s depiction of the bored, inconsequential lives of American ex-patriates living in post- World War One Europe in The Sun Also Rises or Joan Didion’s account of the young Hollywood wife for whom life has lost all meaning in her harrowing novel from the early 1970s Play It as It Lays. Yet it might be argued that The Executioner’s Song may have even outdone these and other similar great works in fusing writing style with the realities with which the storyline is concerned.

Susan Sontag’s brilliant essay from 1966, Against Interpretation, argued that rather than indulge in endless interpretation of what important events in our lives and art mean, we need to hear more, see more, and feel more. Unfortunately, in our current Internet age in which social media has become that which rules us all, we have become subject to seemingly endless interpretations of what our experience online might tell us. Yet if we could somehow, like Norman Mailer did in his great real-life novel, return to allowing just the facts inherent in important situations or works of art to guide us, we might all be significantly better off.

Joan Didion’s Heroic Depiction of Nothingness

The great writer and social commentator Joan Didion died last week at age 87 as a result of Parkinson’s disease; and of course much laudatory praise was heaped upon her online, in large part due to her unique indirect style, reminiscent of Ernest Hemmingway and other such writers who employed the same minimalist approach, one in which she was able to see the truth about so many things out of the corner of her eye. And of course, there was mention of the fact that her writing was so important to a generation of would-be writers who were no longer afraid due to her pathfinding efforts to insert their personal life into a piece of objective journalism.

In recent years, Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking received a certain amount of well-deserved praise, a book which concerned the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne while their daughter Quintana was in the hospital with a serious medical condition. Learning to cope with unexpected, extremely difficult events through a form of illusory thinking by which she imagined she could control the outcome of events which had already occurred obviously struck a real nerve with people who are suddenly forced to deal with their own mental health amidst harrowing personal circumstances.

However, although her entire career was full of challenging novels and essays which served to define the parameters of our culture for us, written in her incredible minimalist style, what I remember best about Joan Didion are three seminal works from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first of these, the title essay from her 1968 book of essays Slouching Toward Bethlehem, involved her razor sharp, brutal look at the downfall of Hippie society in San Francisco in the late 1960s when the entire culture of America was beginning to fray and, as Didion put it, the center was not holding. From accounts of young people who can’t envision a future for themselves from one day to another to her iconic account of encountering a five-year-old who, with the full consent of her parents, is taking one of many LSD trips; the starkness of her reporting exists in what she doesn’t say – the vacuous existence that Didion lays so carefully between the lines.

Then there is her novel from 1970, Play It as It Lays, a frightening personal account of a Hollywood wife who has reached the point where, as she puts it, nothing applies; that in which nothing, rather than being a state of empty existence devoid of anything else, is instead its own terrifying reality. Traversing a world in which all the players, including married couples, perpetually and cruelly use each other for their own amusement, the novel ends with the Hollywood wife, Maria Wyeth, laying on a bed next to a close friend while she watches him swallow a number of Seconal pills, in doing so taking his life, because he too has reached the point where he knows what nothing means and no longer wants to play the game, so to speak.

There is also the 1971 movie The Panic in Needle Park, for which Didion and her husband wrote the screenplay; the film that was Al Pacino’s first role in which he plays Bobby, a heroin addict who initiates a romantic relationship with a young woman named Helen, played by Kitty Winn, who has recently had an abortion, and so is obviously looking for someone to whom she can cling. Eventually, she starts shooting heroin herself simply because she wants to become part of Bobby’s world, even as dark as it can be at times. Then, after she is arrested for selling pills a doctor has given her to some kids in order to feed her heroin addiction, she gives Bobby up to the police in order to save herself from going to jail; the brilliance of the movie existing in both its stark tone (no melodramatic background music or fancy cuts between scenes) and likewise as a heart-wrenching story of how desperation can so often lead inevitably toward betrayal.

Although of course these three works are, as much as anything, dramatic cautionary tales, at the same time it takes genuine courage to explore the worlds they represent with an eye that is forever unflinching, as Joan Didion did so brilliantly. Looking at the perpetual state of nothingness in which all of the characters (real or imagined) live without sanitizing or moralizing their situations in any way by simply describing them in a manner that gets to their very essence is something that not many writers have the stomach for. Particularly in our current age in which events reported on cable television become inevitably sanitized or rationalized in order to project a certain perspective, we are in desperate need of truth tellers like Joan Didion, who never looked away from the subjects about which she was writing, although at the same time allowing us to see them clearly, if we dared to look, out of the corner of our eye. Her loss is an incredible one.

Lyn Lesch’s latest book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was published recently by Rowman & Littlefield.