Book 99: The Executioner's Song



"Once, she was running around the place and he called to her. Something in his voice made her tear all the way down, and she couldn't stop and banged into him, hitting her knee so hard it really hurt. Gary picked her up then. She had her legs wrapped around his waist, and her arms over his neck. With her eyes closed, she had the odd feeling of an evil presence near her that came from Gary. She found it kind of half agreeable. Said to herself, Well, if he is the devil, maybe I want to get closer."

Dates read: October 15-28, 2016

Rating: 5/10

Awards/Lists: Pulitzer Prize, New York Times Bestseller

The death penalty is one of those political issues that people seem to have a gut-level, strong response to. You're either horrified by the idea of the state taking the lives of its citizens, or you see it as a powerful, necessary statement of the state's ability to punish those that have violated its most fundamental laws in the most profound way possible. It's one of those issues it's pointless to argue about...the reaction to it is visceral rather than logical. As it stands now, the United States is on the verge of having to have a broad conversation about it again, as one of the drugs that make up the judicially-approved "cocktail" for lethal injection is effectively no longer available for executions. Will there be a replacement developed, will we go back to the gas chamber, nooses, and firing squads, or will it be abolished? Only time will tell.

The death penalty has, of course, been abolished once before. In Furman v. Georgia, in 1972, the Supreme Court in a very divided opinion struck down death penalty statutes all over the country, citing arbitrariness and racism in determining which defendants were subjected to it. Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court reversed itself and allowed the death penalty to resume. The first person to be executed after Gregg was a man in Utah named Gary Gilmore. In The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer tells the story of how that came to be.

It's not actually all that complicated. Although he was quite bright, Gary had an unstable childhood and started getting into trouble young, stealing cars and getting sent first to juvie and then real jail. At 22, he was imprisoned for armed robbery and after spending 14 years on the inside, he was eventually paroled and went to Utah to live with a cousin. Although his family and new community genuinely tried to help him, Gary had a hard time adjusting to life in the real world...until he met Nicole Baker. Nicole had a troubled history of her own, including commitment to a mental health facility and two divorces (along with two children) at the age of 19. Their relationship was intense but turbulent, and their breakup left Gary spiraling out of control. He shot and killed both a gas station attendant and a hotel clerk, and was caught, tried, and sentenced to death in relatively short order. When the sentence was pronounced, Gary decided not to fight it...he went through lawyers until he found one that would honor his decision to not appeal and let the penalty be carried out. Although a few appeals were undertaken on his behalf, much to his fury, he was ultimately executed by firing squad on January 17, 1977.

Out of this, Mailer spins a 1000+ page epic. And there's probably an incredible 500-600 page book inside of it somewhere, but boy howdy was this in screaming need of a firm editor. The book is divided into two roughly equal sections...the first ends with Gary's sentence, and the second not too long after his execution. Both portions drag for extended periods. Although Mailer's prose style is interesting and engaging, his determination to include everything he uncovered in his clearly very extensive research weighs down the narrative. The book takes a couple hundred pages to get to the point where the murders happen...which are then over, along with the trial, in about fifty. The back half of the book is dedicated as much to the wheelings and dealings of Hollywood players trying to get the rights to Gary's story as it is to Gary's actual story, and though there's a statement in there about how Gary pretty much stopped being a person and started being a commodity from that point forward, it's honestly just not that compelling. I never had any emotional investment in the relationship between Lawrence Schilling and his girlfriend, although from the attention Mailer paid to it you would think it's an important component of the proceedings. The book finishes strong by recounting Gary's last hours, death, and the immediate fallout on his loved ones, but there had been so many bumps in the road along the way that I was mostly just glad it was over. You have to admire its ambition and scope, but the actual product is very uneven. It's worth reading, if you're interested in this kind of thing, but not a must-read by any stretch.

Tell me, blog friends...do you get into political arguments?

One year ago, I was reading: this book!

Two years ago, I was reading: Gilded

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