The Executioner’s Song. Norman Mailer.
A few words about Mailer’s 1979 Pulitzer-Prize winning opus based on the events surrounding the execution of the double murderer Gary Gilmore.
Mailer is an easy read, a classic English-language storyteller unravelling complexities and making them understood & the people he writes about understandable and uncomfortably empathetic. The writer will walk in the shoes of a cold hearted killer, of the victim, the lover and friend & acquaintance. You will understand how a man gets to that point, why he kills – without falling into woolly-minded excuse mongering. Mailer will show reasons, will take you on a trip into the depths of human depravity, the way people are behind closed doors, the way we think at our worst. Brutal & honest, no stone is left unturned, no-one is left unquestioned and it never attempts to make moral judgements beyond those that are self-evident. There is plenty for pro & anti-death penalty supporters to quote or get they’re teeth into, I am anti-capital punishment, but found some of the pro quotes about as convincing as I have ever heard. The section about Gilmores execution became emotionally draining, I read it in mid-August in my Mum & Dads back garden with sun beating down on me, if it had been a gloomy, I could not have done it, it could well have have been just too sad.
The story explains how Gary Gilmore, a 35 year old hardened criminal, who has already spent 20 years in jail, is paroled to his family in the Mormon state of Utah, he gets a job & gets a girlfriend (Nicole Baker), he breaks up with her, usual stuff seemingly. The issue being that those things, those strains that are so hard for us all can be reacted differently to by somebody who has spent so long in violent institutions such as a prison in America in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s (I am not sure they are too much better now.). Petty crook Gilmore needs money for a truck he has set his heart on, and over the period of 24 hours in separate cases he robs and executes two men, shooting point-blank into the back of their heads, the idea being to eliminate any witnesses & in his mind any chance of going back to jail, of being told what to do, of going somewhere he has existed since he was thrown into reform school as child. Gilmores acceptance of his punishment was down to the fact that he just could not live that life anymore, death or freedom nothing in-between. It deals with his treatment through the years at the hands of the authorities from his early teens to his 20’s when he was given dose’s of Prolixin (an extremely heavy anti-psychosis drug, used in the treatment of schizophrenia) which it was said by many and himself to have changed him completely, to his eventual execution by the state of Utah who shot four metal cased bullets through his heart. It deals with his behaviour to all around him, and extensively with his psychotic suicidal-infatuated relationship with Nicole Baker.
…………………………….Go here for some more info.
It’s an awesome piece of combined journalism, the main stories told are of Gary himself, his lover Nicole, and the man eventually who took charge of selling the story once it became national & international news, Lawrence Schiller. At well over a thousand pages long it ain’t a quick read, but it is a page turner.
Gilmore brought out the .22 Browning Automatic and told Jensen to empty his pockets. So soon as Gilmore had pocketed the cash, he picked up the coin changer in his free hand and said, “Go to the bathroom” Right after they passed through the bathroom door, Gilmore said “Get down.” The floor was clean. Jensen must have cleaned it in the last fifteen minutes. He was trying to smile as he lay down on the floor. Gilmore said, “Put your arms under your body.” Jensen got into position with his hands under his stomach. He was still trying to smile.
It was a bathroom with green tiles that came to the height of your chest, and tan-painted walls. The floor, six feet by eight feet, was laid in dull gray tiles. A rack for paper towels on the wall had Towl saver printed on it. The toilet had a split seat. An overhead light was in the wall.
Gilmore brought the Automatic to Jensen’s head. “This one is for me,” he said, and fired.
“This one is for Nicole,” he said, and fired again. The body reacted each time.
Before it was over, it looked like gang rape. It was like he had to have one final fight to show the guards he was not going to take it ever again. Moody wanted to cry out “Couldn’t you just come in and say ‘Okay , Gary, it’s time,’ and see if he’ll walk out like a man? if he doesn’t, then go to the shackles? Dumb dumb gorillas.” They kept grabbing ahold of Gary, and Gary kept saying, “I’m not ready to go yet.” He was looking to pick up some last object, whatever it was. Then they seized him and took him through another door.
As soon as they started, Gary reached in with both manacled hands to a pocket of his pants and took out a folded piece of paper and put it on his knee so that he could look at it. It was a picture of Nicole clipped from a magazine, and he stared at it.
When the driver of the van turned the key for the motor, the radio, having been on before, now went on again. The tension in the van was sufficient that everyone jumped. Then the words of a song were heard. The driver immediately reached down to turn the radio off, but Gary looked up and said, “Please leave it on.” So they began to drive and there was music coming from the radio. The words of the song told of the flight of a white bird. “Una paloma blanca” went the refrain, “I‘m just a bird in the sky. Una paloma blanca, over the mountains I fly.”
The driver said again “Would you like me to leave the radio on?” Again Gary said “Yes.”
“It’s a new day, it’s a new way,” said the words, “and I fly up to the sun.”
As they drove along slowly, and the song played, Father Meersman notice that Gary no longer looked at the picture. It was as if the words became more important.
Once I had my share of losing
Once they locked me on a chain
Yes, they tried to break my power
Oh, I still can feel the pain
No one spoke any longer and the song played through
No one can take my freedom away,
Yes no one can take my freedom away.
When it was done, they drove in silence and got out at the cannery, one by one, disembarking in the way they practiced in the early hours of the morning when these same prison guards had walked through the scene with a model standing in for Gary. Now, they brought him into the cannery, very, very smoothly. Meersman felt that the practice had paid dividends.
Last night I flew in my dream, like a white bird through the window… Tonite i will tell my soul to fly me to you.
this was the last song Gary Gilmore heard 10 minutes before four bullets were fired into his heart.
Interestingly The Wurzels a parochial band based in Somerset, England had a number three hit with this in Britain in 76′ but changed the lyrics & the title to I am a Cider Drinker, nice to see the West-country bringing a bit of levity to the situation.