The Executioner's Song

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This article is about the book by Norman Mailer. For the thrash metal album, see Executioner's Song (album). For other uses, see The Executioner's Song (disambiguation).
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 (1979) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel[1] by Norman Mailer that depicts the events related to the execution of Gary Gilmore for murder by the state of Utah. It was 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 a poem by Mailer, published in Fuck You magazine in September 1964 and reprinted in Cannibals and Christians (1966).

Notable for its portrayal of Gilmore and the anguish generated by the murders he committed, the book was central to the national debate over the revival of capital punishment by the Supreme Court. Gilmore was the first person to be executed in the United States 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 his cousin Brenda Nicol, who agreed to be his sponsor and tried to help him find work. Gilmore soon met and became romantically involved with Nicole Baker, a 19-year-old widow with two young children who was separated from her second husband. Despite his efforts to reform himself, Gilmore had a pattern of emotional volatility and self-destructive behavior, resulting in fighting, stealing, and using drugs. After Nicole broke up with Gilmore, he murdered two men in two separate robberies on succeeding days. Gilmore was turned in by Brenda Nicol.

He was convicted of murder at trial 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 resulted in each of them suffering 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 by the US Supreme Court, Gilmore was executed by the method he chose, firing squad. He was the first person to be judicially executed in the United States since Luis Monge was killed in the Colorado gas chamber on 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 three 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[edit]

In interviews, Mailer discussed what motivated him to invest so much time interviewing everyone involved with Gary Gilmore. On one occasion, he said that Gilmore "appealed to me because he embodied many of the themes I've been living with all my lifelong."[4] 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."[5]

In his analysis of The Executioner's Song, critic Mark Edmundson said 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.'"[6]



Norman Mailer’s previous writings such as The Naked and the Dead, Armies of the Night, and “The White Negro” are known for their complex symbolism and commentary on current issues. However, The Executioner’s Song is the most well known out of all that he has published as well as the most decorated with the Pulitzer Prize. This is cause for interest as the writing style is completely different than the rest of his works. Mailer once mentioned the “need for a sociological ‘fiction’ to make sense of American life”.[7] None of Mailer’s other works are so straightforward, raising the question of why this one was and how it found so much success.

Mailer is famous for his constant commentary on contemporary issues and trends in America. The Executioner’s Song serves as a window to what Mailer sees as the real issues in American society in the 1970s. Economically, the “long gas lines in 1974 and 1979 became the stuff of American legend, the sort of visual symbol that provided an instant reminder of bad times”.[8] The economy joined the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War to characterize the 1970s as a distinct phenomenon that no one could have predicted. Domestic as well as “international events created an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability in the United States”.[8] While these were the larger issues America faced in the 1970s, Mailer’s writing of The Executioner’s Song pointed toward the small-town climate and individual people as the source of the real problem that plagued America.

Characters and setting[edit]

Mailer once commented that he could not have created a better story himself; that the setting, time, and characters involved in this tale were complete without artistic invention. The story is set in Provo, Utah. Provo is characterized like many small towns in which gossip travels fast, everyone knows everyone, and residents are hardworking. Many people during the 1970s didn’t feel as if they could trust the government due to issues such as Watergate, the failing economy, and the Vietnam War. A lot of the hope for the country was held in the good people of small towns across America. However, this image of a quaint small town is shattered by the people in it.

Vern, Max Jensen, and Benny Bushnell represent the American Dream. Each of these men work diligently and honestly to make a living for their families and support those they care about. However, Gary comes into the picture and uses all the money Vern doesn’t have to give him on alcohol. Despite his age, Vern works hard to maintain his store in a respectable and honorable fashion. Jensen works longer hours at the gas station in order to make enough money for seminary school, but Gary makes him lie down face down before murdering him. Bushnell takes the job of hotel manager in order to live a safer lifestyle and provide for his family before Gary murders and robs him. Each of these men only try to do what’s right, but Gary represents the sickness in America that is preventing the American Dream from being fulfilled.

Film adaptation[edit]

A screenplay was adapted from the book by its author, Norman Mailer. The 1982 television movie starred Tommy Lee Jones, a role for which he won an Emmy. Eli Wallach, Pat Corley, Christine Lahti and Rosanna Arquette also starred, with the film being directed by Lawrence Schiller. The character "Larry Samuels" in the film represented him.[9]


  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. ^ Robert Merrill, “Mailer's Sad Comedy: The Executioner's Song,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 141,
  5. ^ Michael Lennon, Conversations with Norman Mailer (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 1988), 263
  6. ^ Mark Edmundson, “Romantic Self-Creations: Mailer and Gilmore in ‘The Executioner's Song,'” Contemporary Literature 31, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 438-440,
  7. ^ Merrill, Robert (1992). "Mailer's Sad Comedy: The Executioner's Song". Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 
  8. ^ a b Berkowitz, Edward (2006). Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies. Columbia University Press. 
  9. ^ Goodman, Walter (November 28, 1982). "Television: Exploitation Colors 'The Executioner's Song'". New York Times. 

See also[edit]