Kyle MacRae is the co-founder of Blasted Heath, Scotland’s first digital-only publishers and home to an impressive list of writers from both sides of the Atlantic, including Anthony Neil Smith, Ray Banks, and Douglas Lindsay. You can indulge your inner heathen on Facebook and follow on Twitter.
Here’s the man himself on The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer…via a musical interlude…
The doctors are avoiding me.
My vision is confused.
I listen to my earphones,
And I catch the evening news.
A murderer’s been killed,
And he donates his sight to science.
I’m locked into a private ward.
I realise that I must be
Looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.
The Adverts, Gary Gilmore’s Eyes
The Adverts tell Gary Gilmore’s story (sort of) in three verses and two minutes. Norman Mailer takes rather longer in The Executioner’s Song. You know the story, right? A bright but institutionalised loner in his mid-30s takes a notion to murder an innocent man one summer’s night in Utah. The following night, he kills another. Despite his half-hearted robberies, these are cold-blooded assassinations, not accidents. Shooting himself in the hand is an accident, though, and one that leads to his capture, conviction and death.
Often categorised as a non-fiction novel in the same weirdo-genre as Capote’s In Cold Blood, The Executioner’s Song is an extraordinarily detailed and dispassionate account of Gilmore’s life and death. Through Mailer’s intensive research and interviews, we learn who Gilmore was and how he came to kill. But not why. Never why. There are no explanations here.
And we follow the American Civil Liberties Union’s self-righteous fight to spare him the chair, forcing a recalibration of the nation’s moral compass. But while others wrung their hands from the moral high ground, Gilmore spat fury at their efforts from his Death Row cell and demanded to die. In January 1977, after several stays of execution, he finally faced the firing squad. “Let’s do it,” he said. His eyes and organs were used for transplants, according to his wishes. But not his heart; that didn’t come out of it so good.
Wholly lacking in plot and with no surprise ending, The Executioner’s Song is no ordinary thriller. So why, at a ludicrous 1,000 pages, is it such a page-turner? Because it excels in two ways. First, in the quality of the writing. With stylistic detachment and remaining invisible as the narrator, Mailer excels in the art and craft of perfectly (re)creating a time, a place and a cast of ordinary yet utterly compelling characters. Gilmore, his girlfriend Nicole and his uncle Vern live and breathe and scream on these pages, and we’re beside them all the way. Secondly, the subtlety with which Mailer uses a crime story as crosshairs focussed on bigger, deeper issues. Mailer recognised that Gilmore’s story was not so remarkable, nor the man himself, but the implications of those killings, both the murders and the legal retribution that followed, would change 1970s America.
- Kyle MacRae
The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.