Tag Archives: norman mailer

Interlude 3: Two more thoughts on The Executioner’s Song and a brief excursion into memory.

6 Nov


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[1]. 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.

[1] Perhaps the major reason why I write novels.

Interlude 2: Mailer, Borges, Bolaño, Brazilian knife fights.

4 Nov

(My newest manuscript is turning into a bizarre writing experiment. I’m mostly writing it in 3,000-word bursts, almost automatic writing, with the creative force just channeling through me. Leaves me exhausted afterwards, but it’s a wonderful feeling, that the stories are somehow coursing though your from parts unknown.)


The New York Times has an astonishing piece about a knife fight in Brazil this week. I can’t get it out of my mind. (I urge you to read it here.)

Here’s the stripped-down version of the story. Two casual friends get into a fight at a soccer match in a rural village of Brazil. The dispute is over a yellow card, as one of the players is injured and refereeing the game. They exchange insults. The fight turns deadly. The referee stabs the player in the chest, killing him. The dead man’s teammates  tie the referee up, beat him, humiliate him, drag him around behind a motorcycle, then chop him into little pieces with a scythe. They eventually leave his head on a spike by the empty field. The murder took a few hours to commit. The police never showed.

Reporter Jere Longman presents a harrowing picture of sports, violence, lawlessness, poverty, rage, blood debts, savagery. It’s some of the best writing I’ve come across this year. (Finkel’s New Yorker piece about U.S. soldiers grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder is the other.)

Reading it, I kept thinking of two of my favorites short stories, “The South” by Jorge Luis Borges, and “The Insufferable Gaucho,” Roberto Bolaño. The stories, separated by sixty years, are in conversation. Both involve knife fights, the rural mindset of boredom, machismo and revenge.

One of Borges’s few non-fantastical stories, “The South” follows a recently released mental patient as he travels back to his parents’ hometown and country estate. He’s a fragile, disturbed man, weak, long separated from work and the land. He arrives at a bar in the little town. Almost immediately he’s goaded into an absurd knife fight with a stranger. He accepts the challenge, even though he knows he’s going to lose. Near the end, the story reads, “They would not have let such things happen to me back in the sanitarium,” he thinks, and then goes out to certain death.

Gaucho takes a similar starting point but ends with the exact opposite conclusion. In Bolaño’s hands, the man from the city adapts to the methods of the country in a brutal, heightened fashion. Bolaño’s gaucho poses. He postures. He bullshits. And in his affectations, he becomes a hardened and uncivilized man. When he returns to the city, he is a wild, armed and dangerous. This story, too, ends with a knife fight.

Both traffic in the collision of the urban with the rural. Both stories detail the mindset of the countryside. Both stories are terrific, sad, horrifying. Both pale in comparison to the depraved actions of those Brazilian soccer players in Longman’s article.



From the rural poor of Brazil to the miserable, near-poor of Utah.

I’m finishing up Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, his epic, studied, disturbing, insightful “non-fiction novel” of American crime and punishment. The book follows dozens of struggling people in Utah. They drink, fight, steal, fuck. They fight, get high, drink too much, cruise around the dusty backroads, gamble, squander their resources, ignore their children. It’s a thousand pages. It zips. It soars. It’s a staggering achievement. I wish I had read it years ago.

The book centers on Gary Gilmore, an intelligent, lonely, undereducated, alcoholic psychopath as he gets out of jail, tries to start a new life, and then drift back into a life of crime. He’s conniving, manipulative and cunning, but has spent fifteen years in jail, and thus has little sense of social cues or emotional maturity. He’s a teenager in a man’s body, with a keen intellect but no moral center.

One of the monumental works of narrative non-fiction.

One of the monumental works of narrative non-fiction.

It’s a devastating portrait of a failing society. And, with the exception of some deliriously erotic passages, the book is very Un-Mailer-esque. He’s conspicuously absent as an authorial presence. The drunken swagger and outlaw bravado that permeated much of Mailer’s public life is missing. Gilmore isn’t a hero, he’s a failure. Mailer was often prone to excess in his prose, but here he gives a master-class in restraint; the whole book is a lean, taut, understated. It’s one of the best works of creative reportage I’ve read. (Under the Banner of Heaven is another.)

Here he describes how Gilmore’s parents met:


The next time Bess met Daddy was on the street and his name, she learned, was Frank Gilmore. “I’m getting married tomorrow,” he said.

“Congratulations,” she said.


When she saw him next in the street, she asked, “How’s married life?”

“It’s over with,” he said.


Song is a white-knuckle read. Increasing tension ripples through concise scenes of accelerating anxiety. Gilmore’s erratic behavior increases in volatility. He begins shoplifting, drinking too much, bragging about murdering a man in prison. Mailer knows how to tease out his story, and waits to hit the reader with Gilmore’s letters until some 400 pages in. The letters are astonishing, needy, humane, hurtful, vengeful, manipulative. They are the work of a raw, unhinged mind, capable of love in the most narcissistic and damaging form.

Song is less poetic than In Cold Blood, less beautiful perhaps, but just as powerful, disturbing, even more honest in a way[1]. Blood is fantastic, I’m a huge fan, and I think it’s one of the most moving pieces of literature I’ve read. But Song seems deeper, more meaningful somehow, more probing, more interested in regular people, less affected, less artificially structured.


Which brings me back to that knife fight in Brazil. Are we better? No. We have similar episodes of depraved violence in many of our cities. In Englewood here in Chicago, for instance, one in twelve people is a victim of violence. We are bombarded by a daily torrent of rape and murder. Bodies are found headless, stuffed into suitcases. We have mass shootings, serial killers, professional hitmen, horrifying kidnappings, brainwashing, entrenched para-military gangs cannibals, and so on.

Mailer argues that we live in an oppressive system that creates murderers and thieves; we just don’t see the mechanisms as they shape us. Bolaño sees the world as a decaying space of casual criminals, where anyone can commit just about any crime (and in some cases that crime is a creative act). And what Borges posits, most simply but worst of all, is that the world is a giant asylum, and that the crazies are running things. Those crazies are us.

Happy thoughts. More to come, good people of earth. Typing away.

[1] Many critics posit that Capote was either in lust after, in love with, or deceived by Perry. I believe it was a combination of all three.