The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Is it possible to start out a post on Norman Mailer's THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG without mentioning that it's a doorstop? Even in paperback? 1056 pages, in my edition. Fortunately, it reads quickly. I decided to read it after Mailer died last November; most obituaries seemed to argue, or actually stated, that THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG was Mailer's best book. I've read a few of his books--THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, WHY ARE WE IN VIETNAM, and I think something else. I remember that THE NAKED AND THE DEAD was impressive, but again I was 19 when I read it. Then I began to run into 1960 and 1970s refugees who either passionately loved or passionately hated Mailer. For me, he was one of those just slightly kitschy figures from the recent past, like Linda Ronstadt or Henry Kissinger (the famous naked centerfold of whom was framed in one of my parents' friends' dens back in the 1970s--I'll never forget that image). I knew he was famous, and I knew what he looked like, but I didn't know that much else about him.

I becmae interested in THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG several years ago when I went to the Guggenheim to see the installation of Matthew Barney's masterful/ludicrous "Cremaster 2", which includes a great deal of thematic material relating to Gary Gilmore and his execution. But I never got around to reading it until this Christmas.

It's pretty great. First, although Mailer is a NY/NJ guy to the core, and it would have been understandable had he not "gotten" the intermountain West, I found his deep and sympathetic portrait of the life of various lower-middle-class people in Utah to be utterly believable and truthful. I could recognize Western places that I know--southern Oregon, for instance--in his picture of Utah, and I also found his description of daily life in a Mormon-dominated community to ring true. (I grew up in a town with a very large LDS population and had many Mormon friends growing up.) I was also impressed by his ground-level portrait of the workings of the justice system, a feature that became especially telling to me as I read the last two hundred fifty pages while sitting in Judge Borkowski's courtroom in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, waiting to get called for a jury. (I didn't.) I found myself less interested in all of the machinations about various journalists and TV producers obtaining the rights to Gilmore's story, interviewing him, trying to get him to open up. I guess in the end, thirty years later, it seems like that whole debate is pretty irrelevant: Mailer told the story, wholly and comprehensively, and nobody else could have conceivably done it better. (I haven't seen the film, by the way). And finally, Mailer's portrayal of Gilmore himself is stunning: he's as completely visualizable as any character I remember reading for years. (Again: of course, Mailer had 1050 pages to do this.)

(I'm trying to watch a Swedish film, TOGETHER, about a 1970s commune while I write this, and I can't help but subconsciously compare the events of THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG with what's going on in this film, which takes place only a year before. I'm mostly getting the images in the film, because it's subtitled--I don't speak Swedish--and I'm looking at the computer screen, not the TV screen.)



  • At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    After you finish the Mailer version of War and Peace, read Mikal Gilmore's "Shot in the Heart."

    Damn, is that a good book -- dealing with Mailer shows up in it some, but that's not why it's good.

    Where IS my copy, now that I come to think of it.....?

    --- Anne (the one back from sabbatical)


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