In 1979 there appeared Norman Mailer's long book The Executioner's Song - a thousand paperback pages, as it subsequently became, on the strange case of Gary Gilmore, the murderer who insisted on being put to death, insisted that the state keep its word.[*] In March of the following year, in the London Review of Books, the book was examined at length by Christopher Ricks, whose piece was reprinted - at Mailer's suggestion, or so I was told at the time - in the form of an advertisement in the New York Review of Books. The piece was laudatory - excited, even exalted: it argued for special qualities of sympathy and self-effacement on the part of a writer long thought of as richly self-advertising, which were held to impart a balanced view of the human realities that constituted the Gilmore story. I wondered at the time whether this praise of Mailer's 'magnanimity' might not conceal, on the part of both writers, an infatuation with the murderer as victim, at the expense of those whom his misery leads him to destroy. Then I read the book. It is, as Ricks says, a masterpiece, and it was clear that the review was not reprinted just because it was favourable. It is a fitting homage to the work it examines.
LRB 3 September 1981 | PDF Download