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.