The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
A Reading Experience (Pt.20)
It’s been a few years since I read “The Executioner’s Song” when I was eighteen years’ old and it was a funny experience because I’d only ever seen a picture of the book before that. I had constantly wanted to read it over the course of a year because it sounded amazing. But when I received it in the post, my jaw dropped at how long it was in comparison to how long I thought it was. I managed to get it done in a few days anyway. I really just couldn’t put it down at all. At some points, I was actually crying about the other characters. My first reading experience was heavily emotional and I was put into an emotional whirlwind of sorrow. It completely changed my perspective on creative nonfiction, just like the book “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote had done some years before.
My favourite character/figure was Gary because obviously, even though he was a real person - I will still be calling him a character since that’s really what he was. A character. Gary was a very three dimensional character with a great amount of personality as explained and researched by Norman Mailer. The one thing that probably makes the character so readable is the way in which the character manages to change ever so slightly as the book moves along. Mailer’s research reveals that Gary changed slightly through his behaviour towards other people as the book moves from his crimes, to his punishments, to his reuniting with other characters in the book and then again just before it hits the execution. As Gary approaches his execution, there is a certain amount of stress on the fact that he may or may not repent for all he’s done but instead, there’s a certain degree of acceptance and thus, he is a different person to what he was at the beginning of the book. Mailer did an amazing job of portraying that change. However, as we know Gary’s biggest downfall is the fact that he is a criminal and criminality in any sense must be punished by the judicial system. Gary’s transgressions and crimes do not actually stop throughout the book and move to murder etc. and eventually he is sentenced to death. Gary recognises that it is his own fault and doesn’t try to blame anyone else. However, Gary also knows that he has led a life of complete immorality. Gary’s criminality also leads him into more criminality - it’s like a rolling ball of offence. Once he has had a taste of offending, he wants to re-offend and re-offend not because of the attention but because by now, it is the only thing he really knows about life. After that long of jail, all he knew was jail and after that long on the road and without a home, that’s the only real thing he knew of the outside as well. So when he is offered a home - he can’t live in one. He has to be out there and offending and committing crimes and doing whatever it takes to retain a sense of normalcy. Gary represents the American criminal in most of the stereotypical senses. He has a massive offence record, he has a lot of jail time behind him, he’s untrustworthy, he’s contradictory, he treats women horribly, he doesn’t act well towards new people and he’s violent towards the police. It is one of the things he represents about the new and modern American criminal. These are no longer high profile gangsters, these are normal men, turned bad by a system pitted against them from birth.
A key theme in the book is trust. I saw that the amount of trust that Gary put in other people was way different to the amount of trust people put in him. People everywhere wanted to give Gary a second chance but Gary is not very trusting of other people. His speech towards others isn’t particularly abusive, but if you read closely, you can definitely see that he is apprehensive to tell people about himself. It is like reading the speech of a sociopath waiting to snap constantly. He seems to be on edge for about five hundred pages. The other characters present this trust theme as second chances. There are an unlimited amount of second chances available to Gary because of the way they put their trust not just in him but the fact that one day, he will come to his senses. When he commits that last act of murder, they even combine their trust between them, trying to get him to come back. He doesn’t and that’s where the trust begins to fade. Before the final arrest, the trust fades to a level in which the reader cannot recognise whether it is purely trust or just simply a version of pity that was protruding at the beginning. It entirely changes the way you read the book because of the way the characters show empathy makes you feel some amount, if not a tiny amount, of empathy for the criminal. He seems like he cannot function without other people but yet he cannot live with them because he just is not used to the environment of a home setting without problems. It is like being caught between living a trustful life with others and living a life that is not truthful but has all the comforts of being that he’s used to.
This book means a hell of a lot to me because I went through picking out these quotations that expressed the difference between pity and sympathy. There was something incredibly strange about the experience. It was a reading experience that was so immersive that by the time I lifted by head up I forgot what day and time it was and whether I had to be at sixth form or not (not like I cared since I was a serial school-skipper). I have read many many creative nonfiction pieces after this and I have even re-read this book once or twice in order to make sure I had the correct side of the story with a good amount of research on the crimes and lives of the people involved with Gary Gilmour. The best thing about this book I think was Norman Mailer’s writing style. It was brilliant and evoked a real sense of feeling that you can’t get from just a simple report style piece of writing for a book about something that actually happened.
I think far more people should read this book than already do, I think people are mainly put off by the sheer size of the book more than anything else and I really wish that wasn’t the case because it is a brilliant piece of research. But a lot of people do read this today as one of the books that really set the bar for creative nonfiction. When I re-read this book, I’m going to look out for the opinions on the personality and the changing personality of Gary throughout the book and how the different reactions change the character.
“Historical, religious, and existential treatises suggest that for some persons at some times, it is rational not to avoid physical death at all costs. Indeed the spark of humanity can maximise its essence by choosing an alternative that preserves the greatest dignity and some tranquility of mind.”
"The Executioner’s Song" by Norman Mailer