Dostoevsky’s America

Karl Miller

  • In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison by Jack Henry Abbott
    Random House, 166 pp, $11.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 394 51858 6

In 1979 there appeared Norman Mailer’s long book The Executioner’s Song – a thousand paperback pages, as it subsequently became, on the strange case of Gary Gilmore, the murderer who insisted on being put to death, insisted that the state keep its word.[*] In March of the following year, in the London Review of Books, the book was examined at length by Christopher Ricks, whose piece was reprinted – at Mailer’s suggestion, or so I was told at the time – in the form of an advertisement in the New York Review of Books. The piece was laudatory – excited, even exalted: it argued for special qualities of sympathy and self-effacement on the part of a writer long thought of as richly self-advertising, which were held to impart a balanced view of the human realities that constituted the Gilmore story. I wondered at the time whether this praise of Mailer’s ‘magnanimity’ might not conceal, on the part of both writers, an infatuation with the murderer as victim, at the expense of those whom his misery leads him to destroy. Then I read the book. It is, as Ricks says, a masterpiece, and it was clear that the review was not reprinted just because it was favourable. It is a fitting homage to the work it examines.

The Executioner’s Song calls itself a ‘factual account’, and it abounds in researched particulars: but it is a factual account which inhabits the great tradition of Gothic strangeness, to which Mailer’s allegiance seems to be very little understood. He is a believer in romantic duality, which affirms a principle of division, whereby someone may be two people, and which is also related, structurally and historically, to a contrasting principle of multiplicity, whereby someone, very often some author, may be more than two. Both principles are evident in this book, the second working authorially to confer a self-effacing capacity to see all sides of the Gilmore question: Mailer’s magnanimity can therefore be seen as an aspect of the negative capability of Romanticism. The telling of the story is divided in two, ‘Western Voices’ being succeeded by ‘Eastern Voices’: mainly, in those words of Dickens’s which Eliot liked so much, it ‘does’ the many ‘different voices’ of the paranoid people of working-class Utah – ‘they were all feeling pretty paranoid’ – locked in a travail of love, hate, liquor, sticks of pot, broken marriages, trailer camps, trucks, rental arrangements, lunatic asylums, prisons, guns. All this, and much else, may be seen as romance. Research has even supplied a romantic grandfather for Gilmore in the person of the escapologist Houdini, who has been worming his way through the American fiction of recent times.

In Mailer’s earlier book Marilyn, Marilyn Monroe is described as split, as a union of opposites, ‘triumphant and crushed’, tough and shy, as an equivocal orphan: ‘Two personalities within one human being may be better able to evaluate experience (even as two eyes gauge depth), provided the personalities are looking more or less in the same direction.’ Later, taking a second shot at a portrait of Marilyn, he supplied, as a dualistic proof, the idea that a person may be a compound of the two people who brought him into the world. Further proof has been obtained from the East. The Mailer who used to speak of the need to encourage the psychopath in yourself has latterly been a metempsychosist, a born-again Buddhist, committed to a theory of rebirth and to the doctrine of karma. Again in Marilyn, he writes: ‘it could be time to look upon human behaviour as possessed of a double root. While the dominant trunk of our actions has to be influenced by the foreground of our one life here and now and living, the other root may be attached to some karmic virtue or debt some of us (or all of us) acquired by our courage or failure in lives we have already lived.’ As it turned out, Gilmore himself and others in Utah were found by the demonic, dualistic Mailer to share his interest in reincarnation, psychic division, evil spirits, vampires.

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[*] Originally published by Hutchinson. Paperback: Arrow Books (1980), £1.95, 0 09 923060 7.