Mailer’s Psychopath

Christopher Ricks

  • The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
    Hutchinson, 1056 pp, £8.85, November 1979, ISBN 0 09 139540 2

Gary Gilmore robbed the unresisting service-station attendant, told him to lie down, and then shot him in the head. Twice, fast. The next day, Gilmore robbed the unresisting motel manager, told him to lie down, and then shot him in the head. Once only, because the gun jammed, and so the man died slowly. Convicted, Gilmore chose to die as quickly as the law would allow, and chose to be shot. He had spent 18 of his 35 years locked up, and he wanted no more of it, knowing that whatever lifetime he might gain could be only a death-watch. He waived his right of appeal, and flung himself on the justice of the courts. That shook them. But in the end, in January 1977, after every stay of execution had been prised off by the combined efforts of Gilmore and his prosecutors, Gilmore’s bad life came to a good end. He was then brave. He was dignified. Generous, too, giving his eyes to someone young who needed them, and giving his pituitary gland to the sick child of his cousin Brenda, the woman who, though she still loved him and had been the one to get him released on parole only nine months earlier, had since turned him in and had given her undeviating testimony. Gilmore was generous, and humorous with it. ‘Well, Moody, I’m going to leave you my hair. You need it worse than I do.’ Thy need, or necessity or whatever, is greater than mine.

Norman Mailer’s book about Gilmore is a work of genius in its range, depth and restraint. It has speed, which Gilmore had, and patience, which he had not. It has lucidity, even when dealing with legal entanglements. It has forbearance, even when witnessing brutalities and insensitivities. Its justice is larger than indignation, and its responsible equanimity is at one with its equity. Nothing is extenuated, and nothing set down in malice. For this murderer we need words which acknowledge an undying recalcitrance, words like those which Dr Johnson needed for Othello: ‘yet we cannot but pity him.’

There are a hundred or more people to whom justice and mercy must be done if they are to be done to Gilmore – from Gilmore’s beloved Nicole (19 years old, with three broken marriages, two low-profile children, and now this very high-profile ex-convict who, for these few months, loved her madly and sanely), through Gilmore’s family, out to the cellmates, the warders, the lawyers and judges, and finally the journalists, bookmakers and entrepreneurs of what became a mass media undertaking. The only person missing is Mailer. True, Mailer hadn’t been on the scene, and it is a posthumous Gilmore whom he, and not only we, must meet. But this is a fact of the matter, not the whole truth of it. Mailer here has better things to do with his self than to attend to it or upon it.

You could call the book a feat of self-abnegation if the word ‘feat’ didn’t suggest a bravura. Gilmore, who had no self-control once he had decided to throw a switch inside his head and to vent the pent, but who had gigantic self-control once the imminent death was not that of another but of himself, is here complemented by an artist who most unexpectedly shows in this sane and magnanimous book a high form of self-control: a control over the extent to which, and the ways in which, self is present at all even to be controlled exactly. The author of Advertisements for Myself is here advertising nothing, least of all himself.

How does Mailer effect this? He does not himself have a voice in the book, which is divided in two, ‘Western Voices’ and ‘Eastern Voices’. But the book’s amplitude allows there to be little of him which goes unvoiced. So Nicole’s deranged sister April is not a mouthpiece or surrogate for Mailer, but her spooky ways of thinking, and of not thinking, are strings which vibrate in sympathy with his strings without his ever having to touch hers. Likewise with the different concurrence between Mailer and the psychiatrist Woods, on Gilmore and high risk: ‘Gilmore had been keeping in touch with something indispensable to be in touch with.’ It is a question of Mailer’s being in touch with all these people who are not he, and not of his doling himself out through the book.

Pre-eminently it is the monstrous, amiable, ruthless and disconcertingly candid Lawrence Schiller who stands in or weighs in for Mailer in the second half of the book – Schiller, ‘something of a carrion bird’ (before Gilmore, he had been the mass-mediator for Jack Ruby on his deathbed, and for Susan Atkins in the Manson trial), detested by those whom he out-does (‘Schiller is a scavenger, a snake’), and yet having the kindly effrontery to introduce himself to Nicole with ‘I’m the big bad wolf, Larry Schiller.’ Schiller mediates between Gilmore and Mailer. The book is copyright Norman Mailer, Lawrence Schiller and the New Ingot Company Inc. But Mailer is big enough to incorporate even Schiller, whose wheelings around, like his dealings, do have a burly power. Sometimes he was‘ ready to cry in his sleep that he was a writer without hands’, so it is good that he fell into Mailer’s hands. The creator of the film The American Dreamer meets his match in the man who now redeems An American Dream.

There may have been much of Mailer in Gilmore, too, the religious, superstitious, existentialist Gilmore. But it is part of the simple sanity of the book that such things are now subjected to an intimate vigilance. ‘Whether the life is criminal or not,’ Mailer once notoriously said, ‘the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself.’ The Executioner’s Song is something wiser: it contemplates the life and death of a criminal, and seeks to encourage the steady contemplation of the psychopath in him and in oneself, but not only of that.

Diana Trilling, in an essay which paid Mailer the compliment of fear as well as of admiration, was rightly horrified by what Mailer said in 1961 about a brutal murder. What he said was this:

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