The Executioner's Song

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The Executioner's Song
First edition cover
Author Norman Mailer
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Little, Brown
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

The Executioner's Song is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book[1] 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.[2] 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 12 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.[3] 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.

Mailer’s Literary Absence[edit]

Unlike many of Mailer’s other works, most notably Armies of the Night, Mailer abstains from directly involving himself as a character in The Executioner’s Song. Many contemporary commentators and interviewers were shocked (and sometimes relieved) at Mailer’s complete absence from The Executioner’s Song.[citation needed] Traditional Mailer machismo, charisma, and unabashed presentation of his opinions and thoughts are instead replaced by a more journalistic accounting of the events in Gilmore’s life based entirely around his extensive interviews with witnesses and involved parties. Mailer was an openly opinionated commentator, even to the point of violence, as when he assaulted Gore Vidal prior to their appearance on The Cavett Show.[4] Yet, in this thousand-page book about a historic death penalty case, Mailer does not take a direct stand one way or the other about the legality of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment or the morality of it under his religious and ethical principles. Nor does he acknowledge other points of view in order to debate them as he does for a large chuck of his other works. His total absence from Executioner makes it one of his only works where the reader is forced to both wonder at Mailer’s true opinions and question why the topic appealed to him enough to write an entire book. This choice seems especially odd given the context of the book’s publication. Gilmore was the first person legally executed after a ten year hiatus on the death penalty was lifted after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a new series of death penalty statutes in the 1976 decision Gregg v. Georgia. Mailer, who usually cannot resist the urge to showcase his opinions on crucial social and political issues, remains silent as a direct voice in The Executioner’s Song.

Gilmore’s Decision to Die[edit]

In interviews, Mailer gave some answers as to what motivated him to invest so much time interviewing everyone involved with Gary Gilmore throughout his brief freedom, trial, appeals, and execution. In one interview Mailer said that, for him, Gilmore “appealed to me because he embodied many of the themes I’ve been living with all my life long.”[5] In another interview Mailer more specifically asserted that perhaps the most important theme of Executioner 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.”[6] 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.’”[7]

Lack of Focus on Max Jensen and Bennie Bushnell[edit]

Although Mailer’s opinion about the legality or morality of the death penalty is surprisingly never directly presented in the book, he does come close to revealing his position for the death penalty in another interview when he explains why the book continued all the way through the execution. Mailer said, “it was something I wanted the reader to feel. That’s what it means when we kill a man. That even this man who wanted to die and succeeded in getting society to execute him, that even when he was killed, we still feel this horrible shock and loss.”[8] Mailer’s selection of choices for the book seems to support this goal. Rather than focusing on the victims, Max Jensen and Bennie Bushnell, or their families, in order to play out his message on the sadness and loss associated with death, Mailer spends far more time focusing on humanizing Gilmore. In fact, the extremely dry way in which Mailer describes the murders, combined with the little context we are given about the victims’ lives, emphasizes both the randomness of Gilmore’s actions that night and the universality of the murders. Because Mailer spends so little time flushing out the characters or lives of the victims, it becomes more apparent that they could have been anyone. Gilmore killed them essentially at random, not for revenge or any other logical, understandable motivation. The message is that such violence could easily happen to anyone, the reader included. Mailer spends so much time getting to know Gilmore that it can be confirmed he had no reason to kill Jensen and Bushnell.

Film adaptation[edit]

The Executioner's Song was later turned into a TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones, (a role for which he won an Emmy), Christine Lahti and Rosanna Arquette, and directed by Lawrence Schiller, who is a main character in the second section of the book.[citation needed] Schiller went to great lengths to convince Gilmore to give him the exclusive media rights to tell his life story.


  1. ^ "Fiction". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 14 January 2014. 
  2. ^ "National Book Awards - 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 14 January 2014. 
  3. ^ McCall, Cheryl (January 17, 1977). "Eight Women Caught in Gary Gilmore's Tangled Web Await His Execution". People. Retrieved January 14, 2014. 
  4. ^ Norman Mailer, “The Cavett Show with Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner,” in The Time of Our Time, (New York: Random House Inc., 1998), 813.
  5. ^ Robert Merrill, “Mailer’s Sad Comedy: The Executioner’s Song,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 141,
  6. ^ Michael Lennon, Conversations with Norman Mailer (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 1988), 263
  7. ^ Mark Edmundson, “Romantic Self-Creations: Mailer and Gilmore in ‘The Executioner’s Song,’” Contemporary Literature 31, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 438-440,
  8. ^ Robert Merrill, “Mailer’s Sad Comedy,” 141.

See also[edit]