The middle third of The Executioner’s Song lags a little. It follows the media circus around Gilmore’s case. Reporters, agents, writers, movers and shakers, all descend on Gilmore and his family, looking for releases, waivers, offering cash, television appearances, and so on. Mailer makes his point: we cannot escape the celebrity culture woven into our country. The public relations industry has eroded the very concept of quiet dignity. Mailer was—when he wasn’t bloviating, boozing, head-butting his enemies or stabbing his wives—an insightful interpreter of our society and culture. Gilmore’s implacable drive to finish his own story , without providing ease or comfort to himself or others, feels so alien, like the actions of an ancient Spartan, or some pagan philosopher facing the rise of monotheism. He’s a marked contrast to the money-grubbing schemers around him who want to turn his life story into something neat, tidy, understandable, digestible, and therefore profitable.
It’s rare, but reading sometimes brings another consciousness tumbling into my own. It can be a phrase, a character, something about the author’s way of description. It’s a plunging, disorienting, fantastic feeling, as if your life has been mapped out before you were born, or this author knows you better than you know yourself. (Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion is a book that did this to me, as well as George Saunders’s short stories, Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, Tom Franklin’s introduction to Poachers.) It’s psychic immersion, and the closest thing to magic we have.
The Executioner’s Song has done this very feat. I feel weirdly connected to Gary Gilmore.
Gilmore says in a letter that his favorite novel he’s read in the past year is The Ginger Man. This sent me thinking about my childhood.
I was an imaginative child, sensitive to criticism. My imagination manifested through play. I loved action figures. I created backstories. I enacted battles on alien worlds. I was happy, I smiled a lot. I had friends, I played soccer, I loved to draw.
But somewhere around 13, darkness entered. I still smiled a lot, kept a happy face to the world, but inside, I had macabre thoughts. I daydreamed about the deaths of my family. I visited my own funeral. My friends were murdered, I found corpses in closets, I fled from cannibals across malevolent cornfields. I watched too many horror movies. I had terrible nightmares. Sometimes, I sleepwalked. My outlook wasn’t misanthropic so much as disturbed.
As I neared the end of high school, I maintained my happy countenance. Inside, I brooded, fretted, worried. I had malformed thoughts. I sometimes felt that my nature was evil. It was a psychic split, mild but real. I didn’t turn cruel. Over my life I’ve had a few moments of disassociation, where I feel like I’m watching someone else make my body’s decisions. My morbid, brooding interior life stayed melancholy, internalized. I didn’t hurt anyone; I started writing stories.
As I got older, I developed anxiety, paranoia. I felt unsafe walking by alleys. I always looked over my shoulder at night. I had a palpable fear I would be attacked on an elevator. I developed a conspiratorial frame of mind. I felt prematurely aged, weary. I was the very picture of the haunted man. I dieted on a steady meal of existentialism. Literature didn’t help this feeling. Far from it. Good books made me feel inadequate. I felt death lurking over everything, a vile sludge running in the invisible country that lay just beneath the surface of the visible world. I didn’t know why I was here, or what it all amounted to. Mixed in with the anxiety was a stony feeling of my own capacity for violence. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, but I could. It was there, the impulse, the wherewithal, the moral flexibility.
Which makes Mailer’s representation of Gilmore so spooky and personal to me. The Ginger Man is the best book I’ve read this past year, too, or at least one of them. And seeing Gilmore talk about it reverberated with me. If raised in a different milieu, could I have ended up like Gilmore? Mean, raw, and punishing? In another reality, could I have murdered someone for no reason at all?
I outgrew some of my paranoia, sublimated (most of) my feelings of violence, developed a perspective on much of the anxiety and learned to deal with it. I absorbed my literary failings and even grew to admire my fortitude in the face of them. I stabilized. I had children. The darkness eventually gave way to new, more mundane worries. The occasional anhedonia seems to be the extent of my psychological problems. The rest of the dark stuff I squeezed into fiction manuscripts.
Some of them are even pretty good.
Enough Norman Mailer. On to a man I love, trust, admire: Bernard Malamud.
 Perhaps the major reason why I write novels.