Books

A vulture’s watch on death row

THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG by Norman Mailer

Barbara Amiel December 24 1979
Books

A vulture’s watch on death row

THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG by Norman Mailer

Barbara Amiel December 24 1979

A vulture’s watch on death row

Books

THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG by Norman Mailer

(McClelland and Stewart, $ 19.95)

Stylistically the execution and the victim matched—they were both shabby. Gary Gilmore, 36, sleazy in ethics and contemptible in behavior (two ice-blooded murders and countless acts of sadistic punkmanship), was executed Jan. 17, 1977, by a firing squad inside Utah State Prison’s cannery. Utah’s first execution in 10 years took place on a makeshift stage in front of a soiled mattress. Outside the cannery the media bayed. New Times writer Robert Anson watched ABC’s coverage with spiteful pen: “Geraldo Rivera, attired in black leather jacket and jeans and looking cool . . . shouting into his mike: ‘Kill the Rona [Barrett] segment.

Get rid of it____You’ll be able to hear the

shots. I promise.’ ”

Fade, mercifully, to black and up on Norman Mailer, winner with impresario-photographer Larry Schiller of the media lottery for the rights to Gary Gilmore’s story. By last September prepublication stories were reporting that Mailer had seen “something heroic” in his subject. He is quoted as seeing Gilmore as “a genius endowed with an exceptional imagination.” A slight sense of vision-askew clouds the forthcoming true-life novel. Is this to be another case of the dread Geraldo-disease, another

example of the truly magnificent vulgarity of the Western press?

The answer is no. Mailer lays out the data of the Gilmore story with common sense and in stunning detail. His pareddown prose style matches the plainspeaking Utah Mormon community that became the setting for Gilmore’s antics. If the book is flawed it is only because Gary Gilmore’s criminality is so squalid and small. Ex-con Gilmore is helped by everyone he meets, only to respond by killing first a gas station attendant and then a motel clerk for a few dollars to put down on an old pickup truck. This insignificant case becomes the centre of attention when Gilmore refuses to appeal his death sentence. In the subsequent commotion his limp girl-friend Nicole Baker, 20, welfare mother of two neglected children and passive bed-partner of everything that asks once, is elevated to a mythical figure by joining Gilmore in an unsuccessful suicide pact. It is in this wooing of death that Mailer sees the heroism of Gilmore. Others may see it as the ultimate con.

Though the individual pathology of

Gary Gilmore sheds no light on society in general, his story does raise some interesting questions. It illustrates exquisitely the ambivalence in our desire for and revulsion with capital punishment. Even though a decent society understands that executing someone should be a moral dilemma, we still feel that there is no other way to respond to the Gilmores of our world than by shooting them. We retain the death penalty together with the hope that it will never be used. Gilmore’s sole accomplishment in his miserable life was touched by one flash of genius: he called our bluff by demanding execution.

It is, of course, ironic that Gilmore might have been innocent under the law. Evidence of his insanity seems to abound. His flaunting of the stolen guns that would be used in the murders and his loose-mouthed accounts of earlier violent activities all point to a man so attracted by Thanatos as to be arguably insane. But his law-

yers chose to offer no defence at his trial. This underlines what is common knowledge among lawyers, judges and interested laymen—though most will publicly deny it—that half the legal profession exhibits not varying degrees of competence but varying degrees of incompetence. Gilmore’s case was also compounded by the dreadful public defender system which, as Gilmore himself pointed out, meant his defence counsel was paid by the same state that paid his prosecutors. If nothing else, Gilmore’s trial and conviction illustrate how distorted justice becomes under a scheme that all but destroys the adversary system.

In the end what fascinates most is the selling of Gary Gilmore—featuring vultures of all networks. The old question of whether the press reports or creates the news is never more relevant than in Gilmore’s case, where he often made interviews and photos conditional on actions he wished the press to take on his behalf. Still, Mailer’s account reinforces the view that it is precisely because the media does create some events that its freedom is ultimately a good thing. Justice would not even be pursued in certain important instances were it not for the hope that the fight would be publicized.

There is nothing heroic about Gilmore. What is heroic is Mailer’s own backbreaking skill at rendering so vast an amount of material into so accessible and fascinating a form. The essential things about life are often revealed in its shabby edges and even an account of petty evil fascinates when crafted by a fine writer. You can so make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Barbara Amiel