The Executioner's Song
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First edition cover
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The Executioner's Song is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Norman Mailer that depicts the events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore by the state of Utah for murder. It was also a finalist for the 1980 National Book Award. The title of the book may be a play on "The Lord High Executioner's Song" from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. "The Executioner's Song" is also the title of one of Mailer's earlier poems, published in Fuck You magazine in September 1964 and reprinted in Cannibals and Christians (1966).
Notable not only for its portrayal of Gilmore and the anguish surrounding the murders he committed, the book also took a central position in the national debate over the revival of capital punishment by the Supreme Court as Gilmore was the first person in the United States executed since the re-instatement of the death penalty in 1976.
In April 1976, Gilmore, 35, was released from prison after serving 13 years for robbery in Indiana. He was flown to Utah to live with Brenda Nicol, a distant cousin of his who tries to help him find work. Gilmore soon met and became romantically involved with Nicole Baker, a 19-year-old widow with two young children. Despite his efforts to reform himself, Gilmore's self-destructive behavior led to him getting into fights, stealing items from stores and abusing drugs. After Nicole broke up with him, he murdered two men in two separate robberies. Gilmore was turned in by his cousin and sentenced to death. The execution was stayed on three occasions. Gilmore became a national media sensation after he fought to have his execution performed as soon as possible. He and Nicole agreed to a suicide pact that put them into temporary comas. On January 17, 1977, after appeals filed by lawyers on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union (in defiance of Gilmore's wishes) were rejected, Gilmore was executed by the method he chose, firing squad, making him the first person to be judicially executed in the United States since Luis Monge died in the Colorado gas chamber June 2, 1967.
Based almost entirely on interviews with the family and friends of both Gilmore and his victims, the book is exhaustive in its approach. Divided into two sections, the book focuses on the events leading up to the murders and the trial and execution of Gilmore, including full documentation of Gilmore's court appearances and his decision to demand his execution rather than to continue the appeals process.
The first section of the book deals with Gilmore's early life and his numerous detentions in juvenile crime facilities and, later, prison. It details his release some months prior to his first murder and the relationships he establishes during that time.
The second section focuses more extensively on Gilmore's trial, including his refusal to appeal his death sentence, his dealings with Lawrence Schiller and his attorneys' continued fight on his behalf.
Gilmore's decision to die
Mailer spoke about what motivated him to invest so much time interviewing everyone involved with Gary Gilmore. In one interview, he said that Gilmore "appealed to me because he embodied many of the themes I've been living with all my life long." In another interview, he asserted that perhaps the most important theme of the book is that "we have profound choices to make in life, and one of them may be the deep and terrible choice most of us avoid between dying now and ‘saving one's soul." Critic Mark Edmundson seemed to agree, and in his analysis of The Executioner's Song, he stated that "from the point where Gilmore decides that he is willing to die, he takes on a certain dignity [...] Gilmore has developed something of a romantic faith. Gilmore's effort, from about the time he enters prison, is to conduct himself so that he can die what he would himself credit as a 'good death.'"
The book was turned into a television film starring Tommy Lee Jones, (a role for which he won an Emmy Award), Christine Lahti and Rosanna Arquette, and directed by Lawrence Schiller, who is a character in the second section of the book. Schiller went to great lengths to convince Gilmore to give him the exclusive media rights to tell his life story.
- "Fiction". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 14 January 2014.
- "National Book Awards - 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 14 January 2014.
- McCall, Cheryl (January 17, 1977). "Eight Women Caught in Gary Gilmore's Tangled Web Await His Execution". People. Retrieved January 14, 2014.
- Robert Merrill, “Mailer's Sad Comedy: The Executioner's Song,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 141, http://www.jstor.org.relay.rhodes.edu:2048/stable/40754972?seq=15&
- Michael Lennon, Conversations with Norman Mailer (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 1988), 263
- Mark Edmundson, “Romantic Self-Creations: Mailer and Gilmore in ‘The Executioner's Song,'” Contemporary Literature 31, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 438-440, http://www.jstor.org.relay.rhodes.edu:2048/stable/1208322?seq=5