Karen Babine on Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song

71o4jdlrsilJoan Didion writes in her 7 October 1979 New York Times review of The Executioner’s Song that “No one but Mailer could have dared this book.” Crafting real life as a novel was certainly a form seeing different forms during this time, especially in the crime genre, but I find myself less interested in the subject matter–or even the emerging world of the nonfiction novel–but I’m interested in Mailer’s sentencing, because I as a writer I am always drawn to sentences, to the point where that person can write a sentence! is the highest compliment I can give. It’s worth mentioning that I am not a fan of Mailer, but I’ll get to that later.

The short, declarative sentences are the most obvious on a first read. The crafting of the very first paragraph sets a very straightforward, almost bored, tone with the subject-verb construction, landing like punches every time a period breaks the flow: “Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared” (17). The effect of starting the book with these sentence constructions and the tone it evokes is a trust in the writer not to editorialize, that the writer will simply tell things as they were. I’ve spent some time with my students this semester talking through Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style, which considers punctuation from the standpoint of a writer and the effect on readers that certain uses of periods, etc. have. For all that I despise Mailer as a failed human being, the man is a god of sentences. With these short sentences that almost have a staccato sound to them, I’m remembering that what struck me most about Armies of the Night was his extraordinarily long sentences—so that the sentences here are rather short is a point of comparison that merits further scrutiny. At another time. (On a separate note that is not sentence-related, the white space between paragraphs also serves to create this disjointed, fragmented, start-stop effect on the reader.)

The way the sentences are constructed vary from character to character: where Gary, Vern, Ida, Brenda, or McGrath might have very short sentences (for instance: “That got to Spencer. Gilmore had never told a soul. Such pride was the makings of decent stuff. McGrath made sure he had a ride home that night” (71)), when Mailer is in the voice and head of someone like Noall Wootten, the sentences lengthen, as if to denote more thought, more education: “He had made up his mind to go for Death after looking at Gilmore’s record. It showed violence in prison, a history of escape, and unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitation. Wootten could only conclude that, one: Gilmore would be looking to escape; two: he would be a hazard to other inmates and guards; and, three: rehabilitation would be hopeless” (304). Nothing Mailer does, on the sentence-level is accidental, so that he included a list that includes colons, as well as commas, signals a definite shift that echoes the voice of Wootten’s character not visible any other way. I have met people who speak in colons (the mystery writer William Kent Krueger, for one) and I wonder if Wootten is also one of those. Cahoon’s voice in the Utah jail was constructed by eliminating many of the subjects from the sentences: “Cahoon noticed that soon as he shut the bars, they started a conversation in jail talk. It was that gibberish talk. Use a word like figger to say nigger. Show the other fellow how many years you put in by carrying on a whole conversation” (352).

Another example of this varied sentencing: after Gary’s execution, Larry Schiller views the execution site: “His description of the events had been accurate in every way but one. He had gotten the colors wrong. The black cloth of the blind was not black but blue, the line on the floor was not yellow but white, and the chair was not black, but dark green. He realized that during the execution something had altered in his perception of color” (963). What’s interesting here is that all of the post-execution description happens in terms of the five senses. After the shots are fired, the reader only hears the drip of blood. And then with Schiller’s descriptions—and wrong descriptions—the reader understands the way the colors were viewed. The effect is both content-rich and craft-specific, because how else are the readers going to be able to understand the realities of an execution they did not witness?

Voice and tone is constructed in other ways beyond the actual sentencing and crafting that Mailer did. The addition of Gary’s letters, the transcripts of various court moments, the inclusion of news articles—these all complete the conversation that swirled around and through these series of events. It’s not enough simply to interview the people who knew Gary and lived through this time, because given the way this case unfolded and how many people paid attention to it as it was happening, those voices also add to the cacophony that made this case even more incredible. The level of detail that Mailer was able to corral and use—and not have the narrative be overwhelmed by the voices. In some places they served the purpose of breathing space for the reader, before we jumped back into the arc of the narrative. The reader knows this is coming, that people will be murdered, and that Gary will be executed—but what the reader does not know, what the reader cannot know, is how that will unfold and how this book is about the people involved and how it fits into the Western mythology of this place. It is a good reminder that what drives good nonfiction cannot be plot. In that sense, this book is not about Gary and the execution at all.

I hope I’m able to communicate to my students how it’s possible to dislike a book and be very glad you read it. Cormac McCarthy is one of those for me. Mailer is growing on me, just because I’ve learned more about how sentences function than I have from few other writers. We read Annie Dillard’s “Write Until You Drop.” She writes, “A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ‘Do you think I could be a writer?’ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?’” I adore sentences. Worship at their wordy little altars. Rave and rage at what we’re reading in my classes, what my students write, and teach them to pay attention to what could be their greatest weapon. And greatest joy. Oh, Norman Mailer. I still don’t like you. But I don’t need to like you to want to know how you do what you do.


Karen Babine is Assay‘s editor.