Gordon Burn on The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

The Executioner’s Song, his spare, quiet retelling of the life of a double murderer is one of Norman Mailer’s best works, but he never rated it himself. Gordon Burn wonders why

It just starts - no throat-clearing, no overture, no vamping-until-ready. Coming from a writer who had made his reputation slamming doors and banging about the house, leaving the television on in one sentence while simultaneously yelling abuse at the radio and bashing out power chords in another, this was of course a surprise. Also a relief and a delight. The flatness and tight-lipped quiet of The Executioner's Song after several decades of Mailer's attention-grabbing real-life excursions (stabbing a wife, running for New York mayor) and delinquent (now sliding into seniloquent) hellclub ravings is what made it so disarming, then very quickly riveting.

The simple declarative sentence, hosed clean of beardy metaphors, adverbial and adjectival excess, of discursive detail and baroque, often bonkers, "existential" riffing, is something that Mailer had always seemed congenitally incapable of writing.

His friend, the critic Richard Poirier, once hazarded a guess that the purpose behind Mailer's stylistic "self-pleasuring" was to excite the reader to some pitch of consciousness equivalent to Mailer's own. As a young man, Mailer had famously said that he would settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of his time. As a result, it had been all but impossible to have a peaceful or casual relationship to his writing. Even after the most obedient attention, the reader was seldom rewarded with any sense of achieved calm. "Mailer is a writer as yet without the ultimate serenity that is probably needed for the great book he wishes to write", Poirier concluded in 1972. "When, oh when, will all the kids grow up, all the wives remarry?" Martin Amis was still wondering a decade later, shaking his head sadly over the latest Mailer-on-Marilyn money-spinner, Of Women and Their Elegance (1981).

In fact, The Executioner's Song had been published in 1979. And it was apparent from the opening paragraph - even of pulse, unblinking, unworried - that here Mailer was trying something new: "Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared. The apple trees were their grandmother's best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda's earliest recollection of Gary."

"Gary" is the career criminal and soon-to-be-double-murderer Gary Gilmore - a "bad apple" if ever there was one. "Brenda" is his cousin - his "favourite coz" - who he was there to catch when she fell and is there for him now nearly 30 years later, happy to take Gary in and give him another chance in the security of her God-fearing Mormon family after a lifetime in reform school and jail. And for 1,050 pages, that - the reminder that good apples sometimes turn rotten, the idea that human agency can cushion and sometimes avert catastrophe, Brenda's innocent tumble flagging Gary's grim descent into the gutter - is about as overtly literary, or as metaphorical, as it gets. Nothing writerly happens until a sudden efflorescence on page 14 - a piece of poetic interior monologue, Mailer transposing what he believes is going on inside Brenda's head: "Brenda felt as if she could pick up the quiver in each bright colour that Gary was studying on the jukebox. He looked close to being dazzled by the revolving red, blue and gold light show on the electronic screen of the cigarette console. He was so involved it drew her into his mood."

The ending of The Executioner's Song, of course, is never in doubt: the death sentence passed on Gilmore, and his insistence on facing execution by firing squad, making him the first person to be executed in the United States in a decade, had been headline news around the world (and a punk rock record) only two years before the book came out. On its publication in 1979, conventional narrative tension - what will happen? how will it end? - was necessarily replaced by an altogether different kind of suspense: how would Mailer take this warmed-over material, so recently the subject of television specials and fish-wrap journalism, and make it new again? And more: how long could he go before his old habits of embarrassing grandiloquence and associative rambling, his increasingly unchecked tendency to put "Norman Mailer" at the heart of whatever he was writing, how long before "the slumbering Beast" rose up to reinhabit him and scupper the enterprise?

At the time, the omens didn't look all that promising. A few weeks before The Executioner's Song appeared, Mailer persuaded his publishers to repackage it as a novel, or rather a "true life novel", along the lines of Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood. And out of the violent mess of the Gilmore story emerged all-too-familiar Mailer tropes. There was the widely-reported fact that Gilmore had elected to die so he could save his soul, for example, and be reincarnated. And then there was the killer's concurrence with one of Norman Mailer's most frequently recurring ideas: that death is an experience of life, "perhaps the final orgasm into the future". At the time these were real concerns that made turning the pages of The Executioner's Song a white-knuckle experience.

I remember Mailer once saying that the best way to come across well on television - to remain looking halfway human, that is, in conditions designed to make the scalp boil and the ear-lobes burn and the ego sit up and demand feeding - was to cultivate an air of total, dead-eyed boredom. "Ideally, it was best to feel no more desire than a prostitute toward the 10th client of the night".

In the 25 years since The Executioner's Song was published, Mailer has consistently tried to frame the writing of the book in similar terms, and relegate it to the second division of his work, the first division of course consisting of his volumes of "real" fiction. His sensitivity on this subject is clear in an exchange which took place between Mailer and the high-brahmin American poet Robert Lowell, a fellow-demonstrator on the 1967 anti-Vietnam war march on the Pentagon, which Mailer wrote up in Armies of the Night (1968), his first extended work of non-fiction. Lowell: "I really think you are the best journalist in America." Mailer: "Well ... there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America." Journalism for Mailer has always been a kind of literary photography, and unbecoming to the serious writer's artistic dignity. "I think The Executioner's Song, more than any book I've ever done, was an exercise in craft", Mailer has said. "I've never felt close to it".

I don't think I had heard of Raymond Carver 25 years ago when I read The Executioner's Song for the first time. (The Stories of Raymond Carver, his first collection, wasn't published in Britain until 1985). And no writer could be further distanced temperamentally, or in tone and style, from Mailer. "Yes, well, I guess they would like Raymond Carver in England", Mailer commented dismissively when I interviewed him some years ago. Carver's reputation as a minimalist (a term he hated) presented an alternative to the lusty, maximal ambitions which Mailer had always maintained were necessary to tame "The Great Bitch", as he describes the American novel in Cannibals and Christians .

And yet, rereading it now, it's Carver that The Executioner's Song irresistibly suggests, at the sentence level. Carver's ear for ordinary, defeated, working-class speech was unerrring; his immersion in the "applauseless" lives of his factory workers and cosmetics salesladies and motel managers, total. "Nothing vague or blurred, no smoked-glass prose", was Carver's prescription. And in his commitment to common language, the language of normal discourse, he was following an American tradition established by Robert Frost and, before Frost, by William Carlos Williams, the poet of inarticulate America - a poet who distrusted articulacy. "The speech of Polish mothers" was where Williams insisted he got his English from. His famous "flatness" came from the urban "work-yard" of New Jersey. But it was a strain in American writing that had always been antithetical to Mailer.

Language was the chariot Mailer rode in on; it was the weapon with which he was still intent on nailing the Great Bitch and smiting the heathen. He had to suspend work on Ancient Evenings, a big, windy, (over-) ambitious novel about serial reincarnation, set in the Egypt of 1130BC, in order to write The Executioner's Song. And the flat, blank voices of the American Midwest, the voices of the people who were related to Gary Gilmore, or whose lives were otherwise rent by being dragged into Gilmore's orbit, seem to assume an added poignancy or sense of desolation by being transcribed by a writer for whom their very flatness and blankness - positive qualities for Carver and other Dirty Realists - represents a kind of dusty-throated deprivation.

Like Oswald's Tale (1995), Mailer's compelling account of President Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, which was also "produced" by the media hustler and long-time Mailer collaborator, Larry Schiller, The Executioner's Song is divided into two parts of equal length. The first, "Western Voices", is a direct rendering of the murder story from the day in April 1976 when Gary Gilmore was released from the United States Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, until the morning nine months later when he was executed by having four shots fired into his heart at the Utah State Prison at Point of the Mountain, Utah. Truman Capote would later claim that Mailer had ripped off the techniques he pioneered in In Cold Blood 15 years earlier - "I do something truly innovative, and who gets the prizes? Norman Mailer!" - and he had a point: Mailer's prose is plainer-dealing, leaner, rougher-edged, but the "saturation reporting" method based on police reports, trial transcripts, tape-recorded interviews with friends and family and so on, is essentially the same.

Mailer's genius in "Eastern Voices", the second part of The Executioner's Song, is to blow apart the mystique Capote cultivated as to how it's all done. In part one Mailer wants the reader to be amazed because the density of detail and the deeply intimate nature of much that is revealed (particularly in the relationship between Gilmore and his teenage girlfriend, Nicole Barrett) seems impossible. In part two he wants the reader to be amazed again because it looks so easy. He wants the reader to be amazed twice.

By 1979, the differences between the conventional practices of straight news reporting and the so-called New Journalism of Capote, Mailer, Tom Wolfe and others were well established. The newspaper reporter wrote to a for mula. He tried to fashion a clear, concise, straight news story, starting with the who, what, when, where and why of an event and proceeding toward the end by placing factual details in descending order of interest and importance - a device that ennabled readers to grasp the essentials immediately and editors to cut stories from the bottom up. His job was to try to hold a mirror up to an event and show its surface. There was zero interpretation. The Capotes and Wolfes, on the other hand, enjoyed the luxury of time: they could hang around until people had forgotten they were there, then creep up on reality with its pants around its ankles. The New Journalist could build up scenes and develop characters; they could even give the sense of being inside a character's consciousness. They could write non-fiction "like a novel".

That much was known, if still contested. What remained unknown and decidedly murky were the often sleazy details of the chequebook journalism and ruthless wheeler-dealing that went into securing exclusives and buying up stories. The naked horse-trading, in other words, that allowed the writers to cosy up to their subjects, drain them dry and then show a clean pair of heels. Enter Larry Schiller.

Part of Truman Capote's beef against Mailer was that, whereas he, Capote, had spent six months interrogating "his" killers, keeping them sweet with comic books and cookies, Mailer hadn't so much as been in the same execution chamber as Gary Gilmore. What Capote failed to take into account was that Mailer had a surrogate - an aide-de-camp and amanuensis - in Larry Schiller. Known as "the journalist who dealt in death" because of the way he had bought his way into stories on people such as Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby, and the Manson family, Schiller is the kind of behemoth character - still fairly freakish then, much less exotic now - who could only exist in the novels of Dickens and the corporate hospitality facilities of late-20th-century America.

The eastern voices in part two of The Executioner's Song are the voices of lawyers, prosecutors, TV anchors, reporters, media monkeys ("There were going to be a lot of monkeys in that zoo"). And the loudest, most colourful and most idiosyncratic of these (as well as, in a strange way, the least deceived) is Mailer's helpmeet Larry Schiller's.

Instead of being repelled by it, as I should have been, I found, instead, that I wanted to draw closer. On January 2 1981 I was on the final pages of The Executioner's Song, which I had read at a gallop. Around tea-time it came on the television that they had arrested a man in Sheffield in connection with the Yorkshire Ripper murders. Forty-eight hours later I was in the bar of the Norfolk Gardens Hotel in Bradford listening to claim and counter-claim about who had "got his chequebook out" for Peter Sutcliffe's father or "locked up" the brother, making notes towards Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, a book for which Norman Mailer would generously volunteer a quote when it was published in America. In 1995, when I came to write Fullalove, my second novel, "Norman Miller", a tabloid hack specialising in murder, meets his near-namesake, Mailer at the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire.

A telling phrase crops up at key moments in both Oswald's Tale and The Executioner's Song. Having secured worldwide motion picture and publication rights in his true life story, including exclusive syndication on his love letters, suicide notes and family pictures, and having promised to scatter his ashes in the skies over Utah, Larry Schiller approaches Gilmore to say a final farewell before the execution: "He grasped both of Gilmore's hands ... and he said, he heard it come out of him, 'I don't know what I'm here for'."

"Why are you here, they [the KGB officers in Minsk] would ask", Mailer writes in Oswald's Tale. "What do you expect to find?" In both cases the answer is simple: material for two books that are to be counted not only among the very best that one of America's best writers has written, but can also claim a place among the most impressive books published by any American in recent years. The puzzle is why this continues to be a truth that seems self-evident to almost everybody except Norman Mailer.

· Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song is published by Vintage at £10.99. To order a copy for £8.99 plus p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875. Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son and Fullalove by Gordon Burn are published by Faber. To order for £8.99 and £7.99 with free p&p call Guardian book service.


Gordon Burn

The GuardianTramp

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