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The Executioner's Song (1979)

by Norman Mailer

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,651444,424 (3.99)175
In what is arguably his greatest book--written in 1979 and reissued here in trade paperback--America's most heroically ambitious writer follows the short, blighted career of Gary Gilmore, an intractably violent product of America's prisons who---after robbing two men and killing them in cold blood--insisted on dying for his crime.… (more)

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» See also 175 mentions

English (39)  Spanish (2)  French (2)  All languages (43)
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
I'm sure this masterpiece will stay with me for a very long time. It's the only work that I know of that can seriously challenge In Cold Blood for the claim of greatest true crime literature of all time.

The attention to detail and the portrayal of a time and place is magnificent. Some reviewers may have been frustrated by the level of description, but I think that was largely the work's point. The fine and banal detail of a scene like a person's last night alive points out the absurdity of capital punishment and maybe also more generally all life.

I would classify this one as an absolute must-read in American Literature. ( )
  ProfH | Mar 2, 2021 |
exhaustive ( )
  stravinsky | Dec 28, 2020 |
What a reading event. Massive, and fast-moving. It consumed my time during this grey mid-winter. Dave Egger's forward (which I encourage you to read afterwards) captures the breadth and Mailer's work better than I ever could. I'm not sure I've ever read a journalistic "event" before this that rode the midline so well and so consistently, offering an observation or emotion one moment and then counterbalancing it - withdrawing it, the next. I guess, in that way, a metaphor for the American human condition. A balance of astronauts and mass-murderers, as Eggers suggests. During the middle part of the book I was trying to adhere to my new approach of being a tougher Goodreads "grader," assuming this would come in at 4 stars, but once done I really had to think about what kind(s) of works can surpass an effort like this, and so, ended up giving it 5. That may change....need to let this sit for a bit. ( )
  shaundeane | Sep 13, 2020 |
I have heard it said that Norman Mailer is inconsistent within novels, whereas ordinary writers are inconsistent novel to novel. I have always found this true when reading his books. He was a prolific all-American novelist, who repeatedly tried to write The Great American novel, and experimented with form and content. His first so-called great work was The Naked and the Dead, still infamous, which I found by turns inspired and unconscionable. Good luck trying to fix Mailer's moral standpoint in either of these novels. Like that first 700-pager, The Executioner's Song is even more ambitious but recounts the vicissitudes of Gary Gilmore, of all people.

I'll be honest. I thought this was one of the greatest books I'd ever read for around 250 pages. Over time I awoke to the realization that it was a flawed masterpiece, and finally, after hundreds of pages more, I lost nearly all my enthusiasm for it, not to mention that the word 'masterpiece' had begun to feel like a wildly inappropriate appellation. The length is exhaustive, and the details verge on minutiae. You might rate him five stars simply for how much research and legwork he did. But you should still take the book with a grain of salt, since it is technically fiction. By labeling it so, Mailer could have taken any number of liberties with the facts. He was famous for erecting these Mount Rushmore-like tomes out of endlessly compiled research. Must have been a real treat for him recreating Truman Capote's method - see In Cold Blood.

There are moving moments, but on the whole it is spread too thin to be moving. It has brilliant moments, but they are sprinkled throughout mundanity and wacko segments of unexplainably detailed sex and heavy-handed commentary.

Gary Gilmore, as expected, is a difficult fellow to sympathize with by the end, though you might have admired him for gumption and charisma, until you really get to know him. Mailer writes about him as he would a close friend, but Mailer's own lack of squeamishness really turns me off. The same thing happened when I read Ancient Evenings, which might be my favorite novel of his so far, where you can tell after a while he is padding the narrative with the kinds of scenes he really likes to write. Read enough of it, and you get an icky feeling in the pit of your stomach. You picked the book up for the sake of intellectual investigation, for history, but the history is not the focus of half of the writing.

Executioner's Song, on the other hand, is a brilliant character study in its own right, even if the focus and writing is uneven. Are some people incurable? Is America's justice system moral? What justifications can be given for the 'insanity defense?' These are just some of the questions posited by the book's subtext. Regardless of its mind-numbing length and pompous pretenses, it is an important testament by an overblown, but talented American writer. ( )
  LSPopovich | Apr 8, 2020 |
Tooo long. The flat writing style and infinite detail of these dreary Utah Mormons' and non-Mormons' lives is kinda more-ish, it is just waaaay too long. And there is, really, nothing exciting in it.

I am only marking this as "read" because at page 694 that's a book and I'm done. (I have a separate shelf for 'read-abandoned'

I do not recommend reading this book: it's very average, and you could have read two books in the time it takes to polish off this one. AND, after 400-500 pages, it switches to details of the film that was made, which is just boring.

That's it: boring. ( )
  GirlMeetsTractor | Mar 22, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
Mailer's massive study of the Gilmore case is unlikely to have the impact its author expected. All journalism dates, and this is not so much the higher as the longer journalism: 1,056 big pages and far too many facts. The value of this sedulous accumulation was presumably intended to rest on the uniqueness of Gilmore's rejection of penal liberalism, but Gilmore has ceased to be unique. Style will not preserve the book, since it has no style...

What we might have expected from The Executioner's Song is a Mailerian mystico-astrologico-metaphysical expatiation on the significance of Gilmore – quasi-existential victim-hero – in a culture increasingly selling out to evil, but there is no commentary as there is no style. The question must finally be asked: why bother? Granted that every human soul may be worthy of 1,056 pages, why should a cold murderer with a certain capacity for love and poetry be deemed worthier of such expensive celebration than the harmless grocer of Gissing's New Grub Street?

» Add other authors (25 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mailer, Normanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brisk, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Capriolo, EttoreTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hamilton, MaxwellNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Deep in my dungeon
I welcome you here
Deep in my dungeon
I worship your fear
Deep in my dungeon
I dwell.
I do not know
if I wish you well
--old prison rhyme
To Norris, to John Buffalo, and to Scott Meredith
First words
Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree.
Other reporters would be on the phone, checking back to hear what was going down, but Schiller sat and relaxed and let the heat of the room pour over him and the fatigues of twenty-five years perspired slowly, a drop and another drop from the bottomless reservoirs of fatigue, and he sat there quietly thinking, and let his sins and errors wash over him, and reviewed them. He considered it obscene not to learn from experience.
Gary had taken a small cardboard box, painted it black, and put a tiny hole in it so it looked as if it were one of those lensless pinpoint cameras. He told Skeezix he had film in the box, and it would take a picture through the pinhole. Everybody gathered around to watch Gary take a picture of the fellow going down on himself. Skeezix was so dumb he was still waiting for the photo to come back.
On finishing his story, Gary went off laughing so hard, Brenda thought he’d sling his spaghetti around the room. She was awful glad when he wheezed into silence and fixed her with his eye as if to say, “Now, do you see my conversational problem?”
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In what is arguably his greatest book--written in 1979 and reissued here in trade paperback--America's most heroically ambitious writer follows the short, blighted career of Gary Gilmore, an intractably violent product of America's prisons who---after robbing two men and killing them in cold blood--insisted on dying for his crime.

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