BY ANDREW MOODY
Gary Gilmore was once as famous as most movie stars or athletes. Parodies of him played on Saturday Night Live. Johnny Cash called him on Death Row. Gilmore had been released from prison after twelve and a half years, spent nine months of freedom falling back into petty crime, developed a relationship with a teenage divorcee, before randomly killing two men. He was sentenced to death and made no attempt to appeal it. The world media descended on the story.
“Not easy to sentence a man to death…who could speak of what it would do to your dreams? A Jury really had to get itself up to go across the bridge. So if the case could be conducted with decorum, and the proceedings kept calm, the atmosphere might give a Jury pause. It would be hard to sentence a man if no strong feelings were flowing.“
Norman Mailer was drawn to Gilmore’s tale by a young Hollywood producer Lawrence Schiller who had amassed hours of interviews, and hundreds of photos of Gary Gilmore and his family. Mailer felt the story was God given, and working from Schiller’s research, put together a book of over 1000 pages, for which he won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize. Not since Truman Capote’s true crime masterpiece In Cold Blood had a journalist gotten to the heart of the American legal system, in particular the draconian death penalty. Never forcing an agenda, but remaining objective throughout Gary’s doomed civilian life and his descent to petty crime and then murder, Mailer neither condemns or promotes the death penalty. As a journalist, he pieces together the tragedy of a hardened criminal of 35 and his pathetic love affair with a local girl, Nicole, merely 19 years old and fresh from a string of meaningless hook ups. On the outside, Gilmore is immature, self pitying, violent and lazy. He has a flair for painting, a high IQ and is proud of his convict status within the criminal world. Of course, like all hardened convicts, he is egocentric and arrogant, and starts to hit Nicole. When she leaves him, he takes a stolen gun and over the course of two days robs a motel and a garage in Provo, Utah, and murders the two men working there. He later admits his crime, the reason being “so I didn’t have to kill Nicole.”
After being convicted, Nicole tries her best to remain loyal to Gilmore, and a friend of hers, Cline Campbell, a local Mormon Chaplain, befriends the man on Death Row.
“Campbell believed the prison system was a complete socialist way of life. No wonder Gilmore had gotten into trouble. For twelve years, a prison had told him when to go to bed and when to eat, what to wear and when to get up. It was absolutely diametrically opposed to the capitalist environment. Then one day they put the convict out the front door, told him today is magic, at two o’clock you are a capitalist. Now, do it on your own. Go out, find a job, get up by yourself, report to work on time, manage your money, do all the things you were taught not to do in prison. Eighty percent went back to jail.“
The novelistic depth and the all encompassing narrative sweep of The Executioner’s Song make it impossible for the reader not to be moved by the plight of these small people for whom fate has given a larger canvas. Gary Gilmore is no hero. He is unlikeable, often perverse and manipulative, but is it the correct judgement to murder a murderer? Whatever your view on the Death Penalty (and there are many who would wish it brought back to the UK) Mailer creates enough pathos and sympathy for this deeply flawed man to make even the most hardened believer in the Death Penalty pause for thought.
Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @Voguishfiction