The Executioner's Song


By Norman Mailer

Foreword by Dave Eggers

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Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and unforgettable classic about convicted killer Gary Gilmore now in a brand-new edition.

Arguably the greatest book from America’s most heroically ambitious writer, The Executioner’s Song follows the short, blighted life of Gary Gilmore who became famous after he robbed two men in 1976 and killed them in cold blood. After being tried and convicted, he immediately insisted on being executed for his crime. To do so, he fought a system that seemed intent on keeping him alive long after it had sentenced him to death. And that fight for the right to die is what made him famous.

Mailer tells not only Gilmore’s story, but those of the men and women caught in the web of his life and drawn into his procession toward the firing squad. All with implacable authority, steely compassion, and a restraint that evokes the parched landscape and stern theology of Gilmore’s Utah. The Executioner’s Song is a trip down the wrong side of the tracks to the deepest source of American loneliness and violence. It is a towering achievement-impossible to put down, impossible to forget.


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Nancy Crampton

NORMAN MAILER (1923–2007) was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from Harvard, he served in the South Pacific during World War II. He published his first book, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948. Mailer won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Armies of the Night, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize again in 1980 for THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG. He directed four feature-length films, and was president of the American PEN from 1984 to 1986. The Time of Our Time, an anthology of the best of Mailer's writing, was published in May of 1998 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Mailer's literary debut. In 2005, he won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation.

"Norman Mailer is a man of wisdom and perception who tells a good story powerfully and well."

The New Yorker


by Dave Eggers

Part One

In the event that you've just picked up this book, and know little or nothing about it, and are unsure whether you should read it, I want to urge you with all my being that you must read The Executioner's Song. I want to further guarantee that you will finish it. It's the fastest 1,000 pages you will ever know.

It's necessary to say, up front, that whatever you might know or think about Norman Mailer, or whatever you might assume about the man, his work, his personality or his sociopolitical views, none of that information (or misinformation) applies here. This is a story that bears no markings of what we presume to be Mailer's prose style or point of view. The Executioner's Song is completely something other. Mailer once said that the book was given to him, whole and complete, from God, and it's difficult to argue with that. The Executioner's Song cannot be improved. Mailer did not write a better book, and I'm not sure anyone of his generation wrote a better book.

I urge you to read this book without knowing anything more about the story it tells. By now, in 2012, the vast majority of readers new to The Executioner's Song will have little to no knowledge about Gary Mark Gilmore, the book's central figure, where he came from, what he did. That is to be expected, and perhaps even embraced for our purposes here. Reading his story without knowing the outcome will only enhance the experience—it gives the book unimaginable tension and scope—and so I urge you to read nothing more of this introduction, which will discuss some of the issues the book raises and will reveal too much. Come back to these pages only after you've read the book, if you come back to them all.

Part Two

When The Executioner's Song was published, Gary Gilmore was as well-known in the United States as any film star or athlete. Now, in 2012, very few people under fifty would be able to identify Gilmore without some prodding. His crimes were not at all unusual then or now. Men go on similar killing sprees every week in this violent nation.

There were two things notable about Gilmore during the time of his crimes, arrest, and trial. First is that the death penalty had been reinstituted in 1976, after a ten–year moratorium, and Gilmore was the first person executed in the modern era of capital punishment in America. His execution reignited our national taste for vengeance. Since his execution, over 1,000 others have been killed by the government of the United States.

And though anti–death penalty lawyers fought to stay Gilmore's execution, and were twice successful in doing so, Gilmore himself wanted to die. In prison, he twice tried to kill himself. When third-party appeals dragged on, he insisted that he be executed, and finally a panel of judges gave him his wish. "Among other people who have rights," one of the judges said, "Mr. Gilmore has his own. If an error is being made and the execution goes forward, he brought that on himself." When Gilmore was facing his firing squad, Gilmore was asked for any last words. "Let's do it," he said.

The execution of Gary Gilmore was crude and it was barbaric. He was wearing a T-shirt. A bag was put over his head. In a converted prison cannery, he was strapped to what looked like an electric chair. Twenty people were watching as five men with rifles, hidden behind a screen, shot bullets into his torso until he was dead. When he was cremated, his ashes were placed into a 59-cent bread bag and then scattered over Utah by his uncle. It was an ugly end to a life of ugliness.

Why, then, write 1,000 pages about the man? The answer is inconvenient. The answer is a holy pain in the ass. The answer is that murderers are fully human, too, and there is beauty to their lives, and joy in their days, and love, and music, and even aspirations of bliss or at least peace. The terrible, exasperating thing about humans is how goodness and gentleness, and utter depravity and disregard for human life, can be contained within the same person, and in terrifyingly close proximity.

And so Gary Gilmore, a troubled young man in prison for armed robbery, writes eloquent, sensitive letters to his cousin Brenda. And so Gary Gilmore, who frequently gets in violent altercations at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, draws exquisite pictures in his cell, accomplished renderings of children, among other subjects, and has an IQ of 130. And so Gary Gilmore, when released from prison, moves in with his uncle and quickly falls in love with Nicole Barrett, a beautiful and confused single mother of two. And so Gary Gilmore, shortly after Nicole leaves him, goes on a crime spree that claims two lives.

By the time Gilmore commits the murders in The Executioner's Song, Mailer has already done a terrible thing: he's made us care about the man. We want Gilmore to live up to the expectations Brenda places on him. We want him to make his uncle Vern proud. We want him to work hard, build a new life, and we want him and Nicole to make something of themselves. But his narrative follows a different path.

On two successive nights in 1976, Gary Gilmore committed murder. First he killed a gas station attendant, after robbing the station of less than $100. Next he killed a motel manager, after taking a little more than that. They were the kind of senseless murders that even Gilmore's closest friends and family couldn't explain. They never doubted he did the crimes—they knew what he was capable of—but still, he could have robbed the stores without murdering the clerks. He could have borrowed the money he needed. But instead he used a stolen gun to kill both men in cold blood. And in tiny Provo, Utah, there was only one man anyone suspected: Gary Gilmore. Before he was arrested, even his aunt and uncle knew it was him. "Do you think he did it?" Ida asks. "Yeah, he did it, the stupid shit," Vern says.

Gilmore was locked up, tried, and convicted. With the death penalty reinstated, Gilmore's notoriety grew. When he refused to appeal his verdict and insisted that he wanted to die, his story became known around the world. And it was then that Lawrence Schiller, a young photographer and producer, gained access to Gilmore and his family, friends, and ex-lovers, and began the process of meticulously interviewing them all, gaining a novelistic level of detail that was unprecedented and has yet to be matched in the history of American journalism.

Schiller then reached out to Norman Mailer, who was then one of the most famous, celebrated, and controversial authors in the world. Schiller asked Mailer to convert his notes and interviews into what became The Executioner's Song. And this book gives us every step Gilmore took from his violent beginnings to his brief dance with freedom and even love, to his violent end. It reveals Gilmore to be likable, irritating, immature, violent, doomed—but always a three-dimensional human being capable of charming anyone he meets. It reveals a family of profoundly giving and steady people who try to give Gary a new life but cannot heal a broken man. It reveals a judicial system in the United States that was and is deeply flawed, wildly inefficient, but largely well-intentioned. And it reveals a nation that is full of decent, astonishingly generous people who then and now feel that the best thing to do with a murderer is to murder him.

It's important to know where Norman Mailer was in his career when he wrote this book. Since his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, he had published books—including Armies of the Night and The Deer Park and An American Dream—to great acclaim, and some to great opprobrium. He was considered one of the most powerful stylists of his generation, his sentences muscular, hyper-intelligent, always unmistakably his.

One can imagine the shock, then, of reading even the first few sentences of The Executioner's Song: "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."

There and throughout the book the prose is flat, unvarnished, plainspoken. The words on the page sound like the people the book depicts—shoemakers, mechanics, motel managers of Provo, Utah. Mailer has sublimated his own style, and his own ideas, to the story, and a fair argument could be made that this sublimation, rather than the mad stylistic tap-dancing of, say, The Naked and the Dead, is the greater feat. Nowhere do we hear Norman Mailer's thoughts about Gary Gilmore, or Nicole Barrett, or capital punishment, or the West. Surely his point of view comes through, obliquely, by what he chooses to include in the book, and what he doesn't. But we're left with the story, unimpeded, uncommented-upon, and the story, here, is plenty, the details so exacting, so revealing, that every section of the book—it's told in small, isolated chunks, like ice floes detached and self-sufficient—is its own small, perfect, and revelatory prose-poem.

"I know you," Gilmore says the first time he meets Nicole. He doesn't mean they've met before; they haven't. They meet by chance at a friend's house, and immediately he says that to her: "I know you." And he means he knows that she, like him, is incomplete, wayward, prone to terrible mistakes. They talk late into the night. He asks her, "Hey, there's a place in the darkness. You know what I mean? I think I met you there. I knew you there." And so begins one of the most convincing love stories in all of American literature.

He quickly moves in with Nicole and her daughters, and we have the sense—and certainly new readers will—that the two are destined for each other. That they will be forever entwined, even if their love is full of chaos and rupture. Nicole senses danger early on, and looks for an exit. She hedges her bets with her ex-husband, among other lovers. And just as quickly and capriciously as the romance began, it ends. At least for a while.

Did Gilmore kill because his heart was broken? Here the book gives us choices. We are not led to one conclusion, as would happen if the story were told by a lesser author. No, instead we're given the full messy range of pathologies. Gary was born bad. Or he was born fine, then was abused and twisted into an ugly shape. Or he was born fine, then twisted, then imprisoned, and then was given one last chance at redemption. He flirted briefly with decency but couldn't hack a life within boundaries of propriety. At the first obstacle, he went off the rails. Or maybe he was destined to kill and be killed.

Every time there is a place for Mailer to tell us the answer, to distill what we know down to a manageable conclusion, he gives us more raw, exasperating reality and a void where an easy conclusion would be expected. When the cops, prosecutors, and judges enter the picture, we expect, and perhaps even want them to be crooked, bloodthirsty, unforgiving. But they're frustratingly decent and morally complex, and anything but monolithic. When the media enters the book, they, too, are not the cartoonish, sensationalizing ghouls we're given to expect. They have nuanced motives and act in damnable human ways.

Good god, it would be easier if this were not the case. If murderers were of a wholly different species, if they were beasts who we couldn't talk to, relate to, understand in any way, if they were incapable of love or light—it would be far easier. But this is not the case. They are almost always people precisely like ourselves, flawed and good and weak, capable of acts of courage and horrible mistakes.

I met a killer a few months ago. We were both dressed in tuxedos. This was at the Dayton Literary Peace Prize awards, and I was handing an award to Wilbert Rideau, who confessed to two murders committed in the heat of a robbery when he was 19. During his 44 years in prison, he became a prolific writer, a jailhouse journalist who exposed inhumane conditions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. He was released in 2006, and his memoir, the book for which he was getting the prize in Dayton, In the Place of Justice, tells his story, from being a confused kid caught in a bank robbery gone bad, to a man who had fully taken responsibility for his crimes and who had improved himself and contributed mightily to the betterment of thousands of lives.

Before the ceremony, I shook Rideau's hand, and we talked about Baton Rouge—where he's from—and about New Orleans and the weather in Dayton. His face is heavily lined, his eyes small and bright and wary, and his accent a deep Louisiana drawl. Even months later, writing these words, I am torn about my experience standing and talking with Rideau. And I can only think that the chiaroscuro sense of right and wrong that was instilled in me, that was reinforced by the simplistic moralizing of our news and entertainment, had convinced me that a person who kills is no longer a person. It would have been far easier, for everyone, if Rideau had been erased after he committed his crimes. He did a terrible thing, and eliminating him would have left the world tidier. Or so goes the logic of the last fifty years of American justice. We throw away flawed people, people who have made terrible mistakes, with regularity and great alacrity. We jail drug dealers for decades, and we execute killers. We want them away. Out of sight. Off the planet. Gone.

But what if they live on? Wilbert Rideau lived on. He told the world of life in prison, and told the world of the circumstances of his crimes and his rehabilitation. He became a productive human being when he was once, briefly, a force of destruction.

And though we erased him, shot him, and cremated him, Gary Gilmore lives on in this book, and we learn from his life. What do we learn? Maybe we learn that America is a uniquely violent and unforgiving place, a perpetual West where the landscape—an existential nothingness bordered by glorious unattainable mountains—both mocks the individual and inspires him toward desperate acts. Maybe we learn that Gary Gilmore was fully human, but not fully equipped to live among us; that we're essentially a decent people, wanting contentment and prosperity for all, seeking harmony so tenaciously that we need to kill those who threaten it. Maybe it's not what we learn that's crucial, but the questions we're left with. Will we always be a manic-depressive nation of the greatest and most vile achievements? Will we always be a nation of both astronauts and mass-murderers? The Executioner's Song doesn't answer these questions, but it comes as close to solving the enigma of America as any other work of art we have.

Book One




Chapter 1



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. The apple trees were their grandmother's best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda's earliest recollection of Gary.

She was six and he was seven and she thought he was swell. He might be rough with the other kids but never with her. When the family used to come out to Grandpa Brown's farm on Decoration Day or Thanksgiving, Brenda would only play with the boys. Later, she remembered those parties as peaceful and warm. There were no raised voices, no cussing, just a good family get-together. She remembered liking Gary so well she would not bother to see who else was there—Hi, Grandma, can I have a cookie?—come on, Gary, let's go.

Right outside the door was a lot of open space. Beyond the backyard were orchards and fields and then the mountains. A dirt road went past the house and up the slope of the valley into the canyon.

Gary was kind of quiet. There was one reason they got along. Brenda was always gabbing and he was a good listener. They had a lot of fun. Even at that age he was real polite. If you got into trouble, he'd come back and help you out.

Then he moved away. Gary and his brother Frank Jr., who was a year older, and his mother, Bessie, went to join Frank Sr., in Seattle. Brenda didn't see any more of him for a long time. Her next memory of Gary was not until she was thirteen. Then her mother, Ida, told her that Aunt Bessie had called from Portland, and was in a very blue mood. Gary had been put in Reform School. So Brenda wrote him a letter, and Gary sent an answer all the way back from Oregon, and said he felt bad putting his family through what he did.

On the other hand, he sure didn't like it in Reform School. His dream when he came out, he wrote, was to be a mobster and push people around. He also said Gary Cooper was his favorite movie star.

Now Gary was the kind of boy who would not send a second letter until he received your reply. Years could go by but he wasn't going to write if you hadn't answered his last. Since Brenda, before long, was married—she was sixteen and thought she couldn't live without a certain guy—her correspondence lapsed. She might mail a letter from time to time, but Gary didn't really get back into Brenda's life until a couple of years ago when Aunt Bessie called again. She was still upset about Gary. He had been sent from Oregon State Penitentiary to Marion, Illinois, and that, Bessie informed Ida, was the place they built to replace Alcatraz. She was not accustomed to thinking of her son as a dangerous criminal who could be kept only in a Maximum Security prison.

It made Brenda begin to think of Bessie. In the Brown family with its seven sisters and two brothers, Bessie must have been the one who was talked about the most. Bessie had green eyes and black hair and was one of the prettiest girls around. She had an artistic temperament and hated to work in the field because she didn't want the sun to make her tough and tanned and leathery. Her skin was very white. She wanted to keep that look. Even if they were Mormons farming in the desert, she liked pretty clothes and finery, and would wear white dresses with wide Chinese sleeves and white gloves she'd made herself. She and a girl friend would get all dressed up and hitchhike to Salt Lake City. Now she was old and arthritic.

Brenda started writing to Gary once more. Before long, they were into quite a correspondence. Gary's intelligence was really coming through. He hadn't reached high school before they put him in the Reformatory, so he must have done a lot of reading in prison to get this much education together. He certainly knew how to use big words. Brenda couldn't pronounce a few of the longer ones, let alone be sure of their meaning.

Sometimes, Gary would delight her by adding little drawings in the margin; they were damn good. She spoke of trying to do some artwork herself, and mailed a sample of her stuff. He corrected her drawing in order to show the mistakes she was making. Good enough to tutor at long distance.

Once in a while Gary would remark that having been in prison so long he felt more like the victim than the man who did the deed. Of course, he did not deny having committed a crime or two. He was always letting Brenda know he was not Charley Good Guy.

Yet after they had been sending letters for a year or more, Brenda noticed a change. Gary no longer seemed to feel he would never get out of jail. His correspondence became more hopeful. Brenda said to her husband, Johnny, one day, Well, I really think Gary's ready.

She had gotten into the habit of reading his letters to Johnny, and to her mother and father and sister. Sometimes after discussing those letters, her parents, Vern and Ida, would discuss what Brenda ought to answer, and they would feel full of concern for Gary. Her sister, Toni, often spoke of how much his drawings impressed her. There was so much sorrow in those pictures. Children with great big sad eyes.

Once Brenda asked: "How does it feel to live in your country club out there? Just what kind of world do you live in?"

He had written back:

I don't think there's any way to adequately describe this sort of life to anyone that's never experienced it. I mean, it would be totally alien to you and your way of thinking, Brenda. It's like another planet.

—which words, in her living room, offered visions of the moon.

Being here is like walking up to the edge and looking over 24 hours a day for more days then you care to recall.

He finished by writing:

Above all, it's a matter of staying strong no matter what happens.

Sitting around the Christmas tree, they thought of Gary and wondered if he might be with them next year. Talked about his chances for parole. He had already asked Brenda to sponsor him, and she had replied, "If you screw up, I'll be the first against you."

Still, the family was more in favor than not. Toni, who had never written him a line, offered to be a co-sponsor. While some of Gary's notes were terribly depressed, and the one where he asked if Brenda would sponsor him had no more good feeling than a business memo, there were a few that really got to you.

Dear Brenda,

Received your letter tonight and it made me feel nice. Your attitude helps restore my old soul…. A place to stay and a job guarantee me an awful lot, but the fact that somebody cares, means more to the parole board. I've always been more or less alone before.

Only after the Christmas party did it come over Brenda that she was going to sponsor a man whom she hadn't seen in close to thirty years. It made her think of Toni's remark that Gary had a different face in every photograph.

Now, Johnny began to get concerned about it. He had been all for Brenda writing to Gary, but when it came down to bringing him into their family, Johnny began to have a few apprehensions. It wasn't that he was embarrassed to harbor a criminal, Johnny simply wasn't that sort of person, he just felt like there's going to be problems.

For one thing, Gary wasn't coming into an average community. He would be entering a Mormon stronghold. Things were tough enough for a man just out of prison without having to deal with people who thought drinking coffee and tea was sinful.

Nonsense, said Brenda. None of their friends were that observing. She and Johnny hardly qualified as a typical straitlaced Utah County couple.

Yes, said Johnny, but think of the atmosphere. All those super-clean BYU kids getting ready to go out as missionaries. Walking on the street could make you feel you were at a church supper. There had, said Johnny, to be tension.

Brenda hadn't been married to Johnny for eleven years without coming to know that her husband was the type for peace at any price. No waves in his life if he could help it. Brenda wouldn't say she looked for trouble, but a few waves kept life interesting. So Brenda suggested that Gary might only stay weekends with them, but live with Vern and Ida. That satisfied John.

Well, he told her with a grin, if I don't go along, you're going to do it anyway. He was right. She could feel awfully sympathetic to anybody who was boxed in. "He's paid his dues," she told Johnny, "and I want to bring him home."

Those were the words she used when she talked to Gary's future parole officer. When asked, Why do you want this man here? Brenda answered, "He's been in jail thirteen years. I think it's time Gary came home."

Brenda knew her power in conversations like this. She might be that much nearer to thirty-five than thirty, but she hadn't gone into marriage four times without knowing she was pretty attractive on the hoof, and the parole officer, Mont Court, was blond and tall with a husky build. Just an average good-looking American guy, very much on the Mr. Clean side, but all the same, Brenda thought, pretty likable. He was sympathetic to the idea of a second chance, and would flex with you if there was a good reason. If not, he would come down pretty hard. That was how she read him. He seemed just the kind of man for Gary.

He had worked, Mont Court told her, with a lot of people who had just come out of prison, and he warned Brenda that there would be a recycling period. Maybe a little trouble here or there, a drunken brawl. She thought he was broad-minded for a Mormon. A man couldn't, he explained, walk out of prison and go right into straight normal living. It was like coming out of the Service, especially if you'd been held a prisoner of war. You didn't become a civilian immediately. He said if Gary had problems, she should try to encourage him to come in and talk about it.

Then Mont Court and another probation officer paid a visit to Vern at his shoe shop and looked into her father's ability as a shoe repair man. They must have been impressed because nobody in these parts was going to know more about shoes than Vern Damico, and he would, after all, not only give Gary a place to live, but a job in his shop.

A letter arrived from Gary to announce that he was going to be released in a couple of weeks. Then, early in April, he called Brenda from the prison and told her he would get out in a few days. He planned, said Gary, to take the bus that went through Marion to St. Louis, and from there connect with other buses to Denver and Salt Lake. Over the phone, he had a nice voice, soft spoken, twangy, held back. A lot of feeling in the center of it.


On Sale
May 8, 2012
Page Count
1136 pages

Norman Mailer

About the Author

Norman Mailer was born in 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. In 1955, he was one of the co-founders of the Village Voice. He is the author of more than thirty books, including The Naked and the Dead; The Armies of the Night, for which he won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; The Executioner’s Song, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize; Harlot’s Ghost; Oswald’s Tale; The Gospel According to the Son, The Castle and the Forest and On God. He died in 2007.

Dave Eggers is the award-winning and bestselling author of many books, including the National Book Award finalist A Hologram for the King, as well as books for younger readers including What Can a Citizen Do?, Her Right Foot, This Bridge Will Not Be Gray, and The Lifters. He is the founder of the independent publishing company McSweeney’s and the nonprofit organization ScholarMatch, in addition to cofounding The International Congress of Youth Voices and 826 Valencia, which has inspired similar organizations worldwide. Eggers lives in Northern California.

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