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Letting a killer off the hook?

The Executioner's Song - Norman Mailer, Dave Eggers

This review was originally posted on amazon on August 23, 2004.


It's been approximately 35 years (edited: it has now been 45 years) since this book was originally published. In the interim, the public has seen many men executed, some clearly worse than Gary Gilmore, including Ted Bundy and Timothy McVeigh. This is an interesting book because it really gets down and dirty with Gary Gilmore and the people who tried to help him. I fear, however, that it largely lets Gary Gilmore himself off the hook, allowing him to blame everyone but himself for his conduct in gunning down two very good men for absolutely no reason at all.


People who are alive are far more compelling and far more sympathetic than people who are dead. This is a rather sad fact of life for people who investigate and prosecute homicides. The killers, in all of their living and breathing technicolor glory, become the central figures in the drama of a murder case, while their victims lay forgotten. In attempting to illuminate Gary Gilmore and the forces at work inside of him, Normal Mailer makes Gary Gilmore the sympathetic main character in the drama that became The Executioners Song.


Only one example of this phenomenon is in the treatment of the Gary/Nicole "love story." Nicole, a nineteen-year-old, much-abused woman child, surrendered everything to the much older man (Gilmore was in his thirties) who claimed to love her. Gilmore, in return, attempted to kill her by manipulating her into a nearly successful suicide attempt. Gilmore's desire to possess Nicole was so great that he was unable to bear the thought that she might be capable of finding happiness without him. There was nothing loving about Gilmore's relationship with Nicole -- he sought, not to love her, but to subjugate her. When he realized that she would live on after his removal from society, and that his hold over her could be broken, he manipulated her into the suicide attempt as the ultimate expression of his total domination over her. And yet, many of the characters profiled in the book appear to accept the notion that the relationship between Gary and Nicole was that of star-crossed lovers (sort of a Western Romeo and Juliet) rather than that of sociopath and victim.

Gary Gilmore was a classic sociopath. He was incapable of caring for anyone other than himself. His decision to allow his execution was a calculated and self-centered one, and had little to do with remorse for the murders he committed. He realized that he would be unable to escape his fate, which, at best, would consist of a life in prison. He desired immortality, which he received in execution.

Read this book. It's interesting. But never forget that Gary Gilmore was not an epic hero who fell victim to circumstances beyond his control. The victims in this book are truly the very good and somewhat simple people surrounding Gilmore who were manipulated and used by him, as well as the two men he murdered. It's worth reading if only to try to understand how this sociopath manipulated those around him, beginning with his friends and lovers and ending, eventually, with his lawyers, the court, and the media.

Remember, though, that the story that we read is not necessarily the unvarnished truth, because it is based, at least in part, on interviews provided by Gary Gilmore, a man congenitally incapable of truthfulness. To some extent, we know what he wanted us to know, and nothing more.




Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for The Executioner's Song in 1980. Shortly after that, Mailer spearheaded the parole of a convicted murderer, Jack Abbot, based in part upon his rather arrogant opinion that Mr. Abbot was a talented writer. He assisted Mr. Abbot in publishing a book, and lobbied for his early parole, which was granted over the misgivings of prison officials who did not feel that the prisoner had been sufficiently rehabilitated to be safe in the community.


Mr. Abbot stabbed a man named Richard Adan six weeks after his early release. He retained his celebrity supporters, including Susan Sarandon, even after he stabbed the young man to death.


I mention this to support my position that Mr. Mailer made the decision to glorify Gary Gilmore in a way that I, personally, find repugnant. He was arrogant and gullible. Had he confined that arrogance and gullibility to his writing, it would be merely a curious grotesquerie. But, by really letting a murderer off the hook, he is subject to much greater censure.