Dog Days Classics: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song

I just wanted to say thanks to all who have supported me over the years: Reverend Campbell, for my spiritual guidance; Aaron, the father of Darrian, my son; and Maurie, my attorney. Thank you everybody. This is not a loss, this is a win. You know where I am going. I am going home to be with Jesus. Keep the faith. I love y’all. Thank you, Chaplain.

These were the last words uttered by Kimberly McCarthy, Texas inmate number 999287. She was born in May of 1961 and was thirty-six years old when she committed the crime that would eventually take her to death row. Although she proclaimed her innocence up to her execution, she was convicted of stabbing to death a seventy-year-old woman during a robbery in 1997. She had brown eyes and at the time of her execution measured five feet, three inches and weighed 188 pounds. She was an occupational therapist at a nursing home, tasked with tending to those most intimately flirting with death. The state of Texas executed Kimberly less than three months ago.

Yes, I want to thank my family for supporting me through this. I love ya’ll. [sic] Don’t fear death. I’m fine, OK. To my friends and my love ones, Miriam, I love you, thanks for being here for me. This is what it is. I know this is hard for ya’ll, [sic] but we are going to have to go through it. We know the lies they told in court. We know it’s not true. I want you to be strong and keep going.

Texas death row inmate number 999429, Vaughn Ross, made these his final words before dying. He was accused of murdering an eighteen-year-old girl and a fifty-three year old man. He was executed on July 18th.

***

Unless you are a committed death penalty abolitionist, chances are this is the first time you’ve read those words. Even less likely is that Kimberly’s or Vaughn’s life will ever become a popular cultural reference. Gary Gilmore, executed in 1977, had a very different story. He was, for a moment, an inescapable cultural fixture. He was the subject of a Saturday Night Live segment and his purported final words (“Let’s do it”) were the punch line to jokes in episodes of Seinfeld, Roseanne, and NYPD Blue. Even Nike’s ubiquitous “Just Do It” slogan was inspired by Gilmore’s last words. (“Let’s do it” were initially reported to be his final words. Though he did say “let’s do it” after being instructed to say his final words, prior to being shot he spoke in Latin to a death row Catholic Priest. Gary said, “Dominus vobiscum,” meaning “The Lord be with you.”)

The New York Times reported recently that Texas was coming close to running out of pentobarbital, the drug the state uses for its executions. The fact that Texas so regularly lays inmates to rest was not news. Rather, it was the banality of a potential logistical problem that made this story newsworthy. On occasion, there is national controversy over a particular capital punishment case, but the source of such controversy can typically be found in extraordinary contention over the facts of the crime or status of the convicted. The cases of Troy Davis, the black man executed in September of 2011 despite serious doubts over his guilt in the murder of a Georgia police officer, and Marvin Wilson, a mentally retarded man with the IQ of 61 executed in August of 2012, presented distinct and ultimately largely inconsequential challenges to American death penalty politics. The former shed light on the racial disparity in the application of the death penalty, while the latter made us consider, if only momentarily, the requisite cognitive threshold for capital punishment. The reaction to both cases failed to question the morality of the death penalty as an institution itself. While these contingent critiques (if the death penalty is applied disproportionately against Black people, if the state condemns a mentally handicapped person to death, then it is unjust) can be marshaled compellingly, they fall short in that they necessitate a seemingly extraordinary set of circumstances—a convict sufficiently worthy of sympathy, a prosecution conspicuously inviting skepticism—that cannot be sustained long enough to deal a serious blow to support for the death penalty.

***

In 1977, the scheduled execution of Gilmore quickly made Utah a mandatory destination for the national and international press. The case was by all means uncontroversial. Gary Gilmore was charged and convicted of murdering two men and then sentenced to death. Gilmore was a white working class man who was, according to all who interacted with him, distinctly intelligent. He never denied murdering the two men and never protested his sentence—in fact, he insisted on it and by firing squad to boot. But Gilmore’s execution in 1977 was to be the first since a ten-year moratorium on all executions.

gary gilmore

It was a bizarre affair from the very beginning. Gilmore’s court appointed attorneys attempted their best to put up a defense, but Gilmore continually rejected their suggestions to put key witnesses on the stand—the most important of which was the love of his life, Nicole Barrett. When a federal judge, the ACLU, and the NAACP acted aggressively to stay his execution, Gilmore lashed out at them and even attempted suicide (twice) while on death row. While all of this betrays an eagerness to die, Gilmore more sensibly preferred death to a life in prison. Despite declarations about accepting his sentence “like a man,” Gilmore’s commitment to vulgar conceptions of manhood and justice had its limits. On the eve of his execution, he asked his family members if they would help him escape. No fool, Gilmore was self-destructive within reason: life as a fugitive with Nicole was by all means an acceptable alternative to yet another, and this time permanent, stint in prison.

***

Gilmore spent nearly half of his life behind bars prior to committing the murders. Although born in Texas and fancying himself a Texan at heart, Gilmore spent his childhood years in Oregon. He was a good student and had IQ of 133, but that didn’t stop Gilmore from dropping out of school. His nascent career as a thief landed him in reform school, from which he graduated to prison for assault and armed robbery. He spent more than ten years in prison and was released from a maximum-security facility in 1975. He moved to Utah upon his release where he had a host of willing family members, Brenda Nicol foremost among them, to help him establish a sense of normalcy.

Despite his desire to work, to own a home and a car, to marry Nicole, to do all those things that mark one a responsible citizen, Gary was adolescently impatient and was finding life outside the walls an impossible adjustment. He was up to no good in a hurry: he attempted to sell stolen guns, lost bets gambling he couldn’t repay, and regularly stole beer. He got into fights and left the state, all of which would have sent him back to prison were it not for a charitable parole officer. When Nicole finally left their home in Spanish Fork out of frustration, Gilmore’s restlessness transformed into sociopathy. One night in July of 1976 he picked up Nicole’s sister, April, to go for a drive and ostensibly search for Nicole. April was having a bad flashback from a childhood instance when she was slipped LSD and gang raped. Gary maintained a stoic demeanor, telling her to stay calm. He eventually stopped at a gas station where a man named Max Jensen worked as a clerk. Max had married his college sweetheart, Colleen, on May 9th, 1975. A year later he became a father and had successfully worked his way through his first year of law school. He spent the summer working at the Sinclair gas station after a construction job fell through. Gary Gilmore demanded money at gunpoint and then ordered Max to go to the bathroom and sit down. Before pulling the trigger of the .22 Browning Automatic at point blank range, Gilmore grunted, “this is for Nicole.” This was the first time Max met Gilmore, and he had never met or heard of Nicole.

The next night Gilmore attempted to rob a motel in Provo and murdered the manager, Ben Bushnell. Ben and his wife Debbie were devout Mormons and the proud parents of a baby boy, Benjamin. Prior to working at the motel, Ben was scraping by working several jobs including one on the maintenance crew of BYU, where he was slowly completing his business management degree. The manager position at the City Center Motel initially came as blessing, but it would be where Gary, without motive or malice, would end Ben’s life.

***

Gilmore’s life and death are chronicled in Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Executioner’s Song. Although formally categorized as fiction, the book is based on newspapers, court documents, letters written by and to Gilmore, as well as countless interviews of Gilmore, his friends, family members, his lawyers, and virtually everyone else involved in his trial and conviction (including, of course, his victims’ family members). In the book’s afterward, Mailer asserts that the “book does its best to be a factual account of the activities of Gary Gilmore and the men and women associated with him…” Nevertheless, Mailer admits to taking some literary liberties with some source material and a decent bit of the intimate dialogue and intricate detail of several very personal and distant events seem highly unlikely to be strictly inspired from interview transcripts.

Mailer previously experimented with the genre-hybrid in The Armies of the Night, a non-fiction novel, but that tale’s standing benefitted from its autobiographical bent, which either boosts or diminishes the book’s authenticity, depending on the reader, but to positive effect in either case—as a testament to his journalistic wits or to his vivid imagination. The Executioner’s Song has a distinctly non-fiction feel to it, no doubt as a result of its arrestingly simple but somber prose. One gets the sense of Mailer’s ambition by taking in both the physical character of the book itself and the blunt plainness of its first few sentences. The book is physically massive despite it not having to be: the font and margins are large, and most paragraphs are generously spaced out from one another. The deliberate and emphatic aesthetic assertion continues with the first page of the book. Consider, for example, the second paragraph of his first book, The Naked and the Dead:

A soldier lies flat on his bunk, closes his eyes, and remains wide-awake. All about him, like the soughing of surf, he hears the murmurs of men dozing fitfully. “I won’t do it, I won’t do it,” someone cries out of a dream, and the soldier opens his eyes and gazes slowly about the hold, his vision becoming lost in the intricate tangle of hammocks and naked bodies and dangling equipment. He decides he wants to go to the head, and cursing a little, he wriggles up to a sitting position, his legs hanging over the bunk, the steel pipe of the hammock above cutting across his hunched back. He sighs, reaches for his shoes, which he has tied to a stanchion, and slowly puts them on. His bunk is the fourth in a tier of five, and he climbs down uncertainly in the half-darkness, afraid of stepping on one of the men in the hammocks below him. On the floor he picks his way through a tangle of bags and packs, stumbles once over a rifle, and makes his way to the bulkhead door. He passes through another hold whose aisle is just as cluttered, and finally reaches the head.

The first paragraph of The Executioner’s Song:

Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared. The apple trees were their grandmother’s best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda’s earliest recollection of Gary.

Gone are the adjectives, adverbs, multiple clauses, and rich description. Instead, we are treated to short sentences and familiar words. The prose and the physicality of the book are at odds with one another—the writing is striking in its simplicity and sadness, the size and cover of the book aspire to monumentality. Yet the combined effect (and undoubtedly the intended one) produces an experience that makes excruciatingly real the melancholy ordinariness of these lives that happen to be part of something historic.

Mailer portrays Gary Gilmore, his friends, his family, and his adversaries (real and imagined) with immense empathy while methodically avoiding sentimentality and melodrama where the story could easily invite them. Despite Gilmore’s life being the epicenter of the novel, one finds in The Executioner’s Song a world lavishly peopled with protagonists whose despair, hopes, and gentleness one finds both captivating and eerily familiar. Gilmore strikes you as that kid in elementary school you wanted to be cool with if only to be spared from getting hurt by him. Nicole, Gilmore’s infatuation, is kind, loving, but unapproachable to all but seemingly the most wretched men. Above all, Mailer’s characters wear the face of someone who is worn out, someone who seems to have come to terms with being, to use Nicole’s word, a loser. This makes everyone involved exceedingly sympathetic, even Gary. This is no small feat: not only was Gilmore an admitted murderer, he was also an unapologetic white supremacist, a manipulating misogynist, and a smug ingrate to top it off. There are times in the book when one has the urge to strangle Gilmore, only to be followed up by page after page in which one can’t help but feel sorry for him and depressed by the life he and everyone around him lives.

***

Given the volatility of Gilmore’s life and the extreme range of emotion his personality evokes, it is fitting that Norman Mailer became his biographer. Insofar as literary talent is concerned, Mailer possessed an embarrassment of riches. In terms of tact and social graces, he was an embarrassment. In addition to being an undeniable force in the world of literature, he also made a name for himself for stabbing his wife, among other disturbing escapades. Mailer’s personal fiascos aside, The Executioner’s Song glared at me every time I stepped into a bookstore since high school. In college I became acquainted with Mailer’s place in literature and American culture, and I found his work increasingly intriguing. Although The Executioner’s Song is certainly a classic, I break from the “Dog Days Classics” tradition in that it is not a book I read years ago that had a profound impact. I read it earlier this summer as part of a cleanse from the stilted prose of academic monographs. Other books, albums, movies, and events have come and gone since that reading, but Gary Gilmore and his loved ones appear in my thoughts at random points each day. It’s a book that is impossible to forget.

***

To earn my keep, I spent the bulk of my summer in the Texas state archives in Austin. Aside from reacquainting with old friends over good (and cheap!) food and drinks, one of the pleasures I anticipated most was the chance to spend some time talking with my father-in-law. An engineer by training, he relishes the opportunity to engage in conversation on a variety of topics—from politics and sports to economics and technology. Over the years, with work and family life growing in importance, his time for leisurely reading has diminished. Nevertheless, every time we meet, he’ll ask what I’m reading and on one occasion I admitted to him that the past week had been mostly lost to reading government reports from the 1970s. I told him that I was doing research on the Texas prison system and he immediately asked if I’ve ever read The Executioner’s Song. I said that in fact I had just finished reading it and he proceeded to speak in detail about Gary Gilmore, his cousin Brenda Nicol, the film producer and writer Larry Schiller, and, of course, Nicole. The discussion continued, consisting mostly of me taking in his shrewd observations on each of the characters and Mailer’s intention with the prose style and narrative arc. He read the book nearly three decades ago.

Those fortunate enough to have read The Executioner’s Song understand that, even in the most clear cut of cases, behind every hideous crime that has resulted in capital punishment, there’s a complicated human story. Yet Mailer accomplished more than deliver 1,000 pages of tragedy. Rather, the book brings to life a particular conception of humanity indebted to Enlightenment thought. Mailer depicts Gilmore coping with vulnerability and frustration, engaging in extraordinary acts of kindness and grotesque violence. His victims are portrayed as imperfect but striving to lead virtuous lives. Mailer, in short, posits a kaleidoscopic humanity, one at odds with a world that marks a person’s profound moral failings as the defining feature of their personhood, thus justifying the destruction of human life. The irony here is that Gilmore didn’t object to his execution. He, as the saying goes, took responsibility for his actions. Nevertheless, Mailer provides a vivid illustration of the old concept of dignity being intrinsic to personhood, and, by doing so, suggests that there are some things that ought not be made a casualty of accountability. Whatever the original intent of the book, for me, it constitutes a subtle but morally powerful case against the death penalty. For the few that have heard of Kimberly McCarthy, Vaughn Ross, and the countless others that have tragically gone before them, one hopes The Executioner’s Song can serve as an ode to their humanity.

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