The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

5DF10CBB-A65E-4C65-B6E5-F119B079DA59.JPGI have been fascinated with murders and murderers for as long as I can remember. I’ve also always been a big reader, and when you put those two things together, true crime and reading, you invariably get to The Executioner’s Song. It is an eleven hundred page true crime classic. And so after ten years, I finally decided to check this off the big book bucket list.

Here is more about The Executioner’s Song:

Arguably the greatest book from America’s most heroically ambitious writer,The Executioner’s Song follows the short, blighted life of Gary Gilmore who became famous after he robbed two men in 1976 and killed them in cold blood. After being tried and convicted, he immediately insisted on being executed for his crime. To do so, he fought a system that seemed intent on keeping him alive long after it had sentenced him to death. And that fight for the right to die is what made him famous.

Mailer tells not only Gilmore’s story, but those of the men and women caught in the web of his life and drawn into his procession toward the firing squad. All with implacable authority, steely compassion, and a restraint that evokes the parched landscape and stern theology of Gilmore’s Utah.The Executioner’s Song is a trip down the wrong side of the tracks to the deepest source of American loneliness and violence. It is a towering achievement-impossible to put down, impossible to forget.


Normally when I read a book, I feel pretty confident in my review. I sit down to write it, and out comes my thoughts. I may stop and start a little, but with The Executioner’s Song I am about 4-5 attempts in and still feeling unsure of where I stand. Part of my struggle is coming from the fact that there is just so much book, so many ideas to unpack and feelings to sort through. Another part is because I do not want to spoil anything, even though you could easily spoil so much by looking up Gary Gilmore on wikipedia. So here goes my attempt to explain my thoughts without out giving away too much…

This is the kind of book that haunts you, not because of what happens in it, but because of how it all unravels. I didn’t love the book. It never fully hooked me, but I have found myself thinking about the people involved in Gilmore’s life and death a lot since I finished it. There were moments of suspense that I thoroughly enjoyed, and then sections that felt endless. There were people I loved in one section of the book, and then was hoping they’d be leaving the story a hundred pages later. While I never fully understood why so many people rave about this book, I suspect it has to do with the way Mailer is able to give his characters room to transform in front of the readers eyes. These people feel full and complete, no one is without dimension. Mailer’s writing style is impressive and specific and lacks any frills. It is direct, like the people you find in the book.

A tale of White toxic masculinity told by a toxic White man, The Executioner’s Song can be rage inducing. I felt myself feeling sorry for a murderer and domestic abuser in one moment and then feeling furious at the author for presenting the story in that way. Giving Gilmore so much room to garner sympathies when he really behaves disgustingly through out. Despite his deep flaws, Mailer does find humanity in Gilmore. He also finds the humanity in the kind of world where a Gary Gilmore could be created. I don’t disagree with Mailer that part of Gilmore was cultivated during his time in prison, however the compassion that Mailer asks us to show to Gilmore was often times more than I could bear.

There are no answers in this book. I am okay with that. Conversations around incarceration and murder and class and relationships are seldom clear cut. Mailer throws all his research your way, and more or less asks you to sift through it. He may guide you, or allow his characters to sway you, but in the end you’ll take from this book whatever you need.

One of the big topics of debate revolves around capital punishment, not only if its a good idea or not, but how someone is sentenced for death and how that process progresses. Forty-plus years later, this part of the book feels more current than it should. We get a view of the death penalty debate from many sides. We see how death row works, how the appeals process functions, we even get a good look at the media frenzy behind high profile criminal cases. In the end, I found myself asking over and over, what is the point? Is the world really any better off with Gilmore dead?

In the end I am glad I read this book. I didn’t love it, but I appreciated it, not only as a piece of writing but as a glimpse into a moment in time. After spending the better part of a month reading through this book, it was not the greatest thing that ever happened to me, but I did have major moments of shock and awe. It is an incredible feat of journalism and story telling, and it is an exceptional commentary on the death penalty and the humanity of criminals. I can recognize the greatness in The Executioner’s Song theoretically, but I could never fully feel the power that many others have experienced in reading the book.

  • Hardcover: 1136 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; Reprint edition (May 8, 2012)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on The Executioner’s Song Amazon

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If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

78BB304E-DA7D-4F9A-BB17-42DF210C020EHere is yet another book I decided to read right away, because the movie is coming. I have read a little James Baldwin here and there and never been disappointed, but to be honest I was in no hurry to read this book, until I saw the trailer for the If Beale Street Could Talk.

If you’re not familiar with the this novel, here is a brief synopsis for you.

Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions–affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

This book seamlessly marries a fictional story with very clear and searing commentary on injustice in America. Baldwin never wavers in this convictions about racism and the corruptness of the criminal justice system, however these ideas don’t come at the expense of believable characters or dialogue. The people found in this book embody the spirit of Baldwin’s thoughts and they live effortlessly in his words. The interactions feel authentic and the characters all have agency. They are not puppets for Baldwin’s believes, nor are they just there to move the story along.

If Beale Street Could Talk moves between present day and flashbacks, and is told through the eyes of Tish. Baldwin’s economy of words is beyond impressive, with a less skilled writer this book could easily be over 400 pages, but Bladwin keeps the book short and the emotion charged through out. He knows what he is trying to do an he executes. There are scenes in this book that are so tense that I shrieked out loud and had drop the book and walk away for a few moments to get my heart rate down. That kind of writing is not common, it is extraordinary.

While I enjoyed both the main character Fonny and Tish, the supporting characters were the real stars of this book for me. From both of Fonny and Tish’s family to the waiters at a small Spanish restaurant. The world is made vivid through the thoughts and actions of those who live in and around our young lovers.

The only thing I can say that I didn’t love about this book, is that I thought it got off to a slow start. I wasn’t fully invested in the book until about 50 pages in, and in a book thats less that 200 pages, thats a good chunk. However, once I got in, I was hooked.

You should read this book before you see the movie. I would say you should read this book even if you have no intention to see this movie at all. James Baldwin is considered one of the greats for a reason, his work is great. It is that simple.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Ep. 6 Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin — The Stacks Book Club (Chris Maddox)

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgOn this week of The Stacks, we discuss Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin with our guest, TV writer Chris Maddox.

Giovanni’s Room is a classic American novel written in 1956, and the topics of masculinity, isolation, and love deferred are as relevant now as they were then. Our conversation traverses these themes from the book and more, like what we think of the title and who we think should star in the film version.
 
There are spoilers in this episode, so if you’ve yet to read the book proceed with caution.
Here are other things that we talked about this week on The Stacks.509E8204-E248-4688-A6D3-EC4A5C6E722C

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To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here