(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Executioner's Song (1980)
By Norman Mailer
Book #52 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
One of the last great hurrahs from the so-called "New Journalism" of the countercultural years (but more on that in a bit), this 1980 book purports to be a "true-life novel," telling in a sweeping and narrative way the tale of Gary Gilmore, who just a few years previously had become the first person executed in the US since the Supreme Court's lifting of the ban that had lasted over a decade, at the time a hotly contested political issue that galvanized anti-death-penalty advocates. As such, then, the thousand-page manuscript is split into two parts: in "Western Stories," we get the tale of Gilmore himself, the murders that sent him to jail, and in general just the kind of rough-and-tumble life he was leading back in early-'70s Utah where these events took place; while in "Eastern Stories," we get an exhaustively detailed guide to the actual trial, as well as all the machinations that came with him becoming a cause celebre (including a last-minute phone call from Johnny Cash right before his death, as well as one of history's first media frenzies over securing a criminal's story rights).
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, say its fans, this won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize, and was also easily the biggest commercial hit of Mailer's entire oeuvre; but this is just a deserving capper, they argue, to the long career of a fascinating writer, one who with a handful of others almost singlehandedly changed the way we now think of journalism. And like I said before, this is because Mailer (along with contemporaries like Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey, and Hunter S. Thompson) is considered a pioneer of what's called the "New Journalism" of the 1960s and '70s, a more engaging style of truth-reporting that enfolds not only the "facts" but also the metafictional elements surrounding those facts, like for example the journalist's own life and biases, and how their report actively changes the events they're reporting on. (After all, Mailer was one of the founders of the now revered Village Voice, which virtually created the blueprint for all the alternative urban arts-and-culture weeklies that came after, as well as the habit of all of them to center each issue around a lengthy piece of hard-hitting investigative journalism regarding a left-leaning social issue.) Love it or hate it, there had never been anything quite like The Executioner's Song before Mailer sat down and actually wrote it, a subtly seminal book that has had a much bigger impact on the nonfiction pieces of the '80s, '90s and '00s than most people even realize.
The argument against:
As is the case with many contentious classics, critics of this book use pretty much the same facts cited by its fans but to posit the exact opposite argument -- that the main reason this won the Pulitzer was to celebrate Norman Mailer being Norman Mailer, and that the entire "New Journalism" movement is in reality an embarrassing excuse for a bunch of arrogant blowhard males (and they're always males) to stroke their own massive egos. And indeed, no matter what you think of this argument, there's definitely some objective truth to back it up; it's hard to deny, for example, that the second half of this book is not so much about Gilmore himself as it is Hollywood producer Lawrence Schiller, the opportunist who did most of the wheeling and dealing to secure Gilmore's story rights in the first place, and who actually conducted the vast majority of the interviews that Mailer based his book on. A padded, badly written doorstop of a book that simply confirms the author's obsession with grunting, violent misogynists, critics argue that the only reason The Executioner's Song gained any notoriety in the first place is because it's so big, tackled an issue that at the time was so trendy, and was written by Mailer during the height of his public infamy; and as soon as these three elements are forgotten, so too will this book quickly recede into obscurity, which critics claim you're already starting to see happen these days, just thirty years after the book's initial publication.
Covering as it does almost the entire history of written literature, there are of course all kinds of fascinatingly unique issues to deal with regarding all the time periods looked at in this CCLaP 100 essay series, from the standardization of modern English itself during the Renaissance to the establishment of the novel format during the Victorian Age; and one of the most interesting things about the Postmodernist Era (lasting roughly from Kennedy's death to 9/11) is that it allows me to look at writers who are destined to be quickly forgotten by history but haven't yet, the slew of artists in any given generation who might become quite big in their own lifetimes but who eventually suffer the same fate as, say, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, once the biggest-selling author in human history but now only remembered (if at all) for coining the phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night." I consider Norman Mailer one of these people, for example, because what his critics say is definitely true -- that he was much more known during his lifetime for being Norman Mailer than for any of his individual finished works, a bombastic and larger-than-life figure who exploited the "let it all hang out," "there are no wrong opinions" attitude of his hippie times to get away with some of the most ridiculously blatant sexism, homophobia, and just plain bullying the modern age has ever seen.
But as history teaches us, it is these self-referential "meta-celebrities" who are the quickest to be forgotten by posterity, and frankly I doubt that Mailer is going to be anything but a scholarly footnote by this point even fifty years from now; and so that makes it quite interesting to read one of his best-known books at this particular moment in history, when public goodwill for Mailer is currently at one of its highest points (he died just three years before I'm writing this, long enough for his canonization by fans to have begun), because undoubtedly both he and his work will be looked at in an entirely different way in just another generation or two from now. And indeed, while I found the book interesting enough, I also had a lot of sympathy for its critics' arguments, that there is an unhealthy symbiosis here between its length, the author's notoriety, and the amount of attention and awards it received; because surprisingly enough, it turns out that when you write a 500-page story about the ins and outs of daily life for a petty criminal in the rural wastelands of the Pacific Northwest, such a story tends to get really tedious really fast, and it's hard to deny that the only reason Mailer made it this big and tedious was to give the Pulitzer committee the justification needed to give that year's award to a book that is frankly only subpar in quality. Although certainly it had the kind of impact on journalism that its fans claim (albeit not always in a positive way -- this is also the book that helped inspire all those endless "To Catch a Predator" lurid network-television specials), I can't honestly say that the book itself is anything special, and certainly not one of those fabled "books to read before you die" that serves as the ultimate litmus test in this essay series. Do yourself a favor and read a biography instead of this endlessly captivating and infuriating figure, which much more than his finished books is what I feel will be his real lasting legacy.
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)