IN The New York Times Book Review’s July 19, 2012 review of Dave Eggers’s novel A Hologram for the King, Norman Mailer is mentioned no less than 16 times. The reviewer, Pico Iyer, rhetorically establishes Eggers as Mailer’s peer. In serendipitous publicity-charmed timing, the foreword to the latest edition (May 8, 2012) of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song is by Eggers, published within months of the Mailer-themed review. Whether or not Iyer’s evaluation is justified, Mailer and Eggers share one other distinction: like Mailer 30 years ago, Eggers is at the center of nonfiction controversy and scandal.
At over 1,000 pages, The Executioner’s Song is considered by many to be Mailer’s best book, a Pulitzer Prize winning “true life novel” depicting the 1977 events surrounding the parole, release, and execution of Gary Gilmore by the state of Utah for murder. Mailer relied extensively on notes, documents, letters, and interviews with both the family and friends of Gilmore and his victims, bestowed to him by the part visionary, part promotion-opportunistic machine of a man, Larry Schiller.
“Mailer once said,” writes Eggers in his seven page foreword, “that the book was given to him, whole and complete, from God, and it is difficult to argue with that. The Executioner’s Song cannot be improved.” Eggers’s observation is either an oversimplification, or an approving wink and nod to Mailer’s well-known ego. The book that cannot be improved is yet to be written.
“By the time Gilmore commits the murders in The Executioner’s Song,” Eggers continues, “Mailer has already done a terrible thing: he’s made us care about the man.” I’m not sure Eggers is right. I was scared, confused, disgusted, and awed by Gary Gilmore. But I didn’t grow to care about him, at least not in the sense Eggers implies. Describing Gilmore’s relationship with Nicole Baker, Eggers writes that Gilmore “quickly moves in with Nicole and her daughters.” Nicole does not have daughters, she has a daughter and a son: Sunny Marie Baker and Jeremy Kip Barrett. The children are horrifically neglected, abused, and damaged in the novel, and the error in the foreword bothered me. Nicole is a main character, as are her children. Furthermore, they’re real people, alive somewhere. In other words, I care about them.
Real life has a creative capacity to surpass and complicate art; characters based on the living can subsequently become uncooperative, making their page-bound existence look like a case of mistaken identity. Gary Gilmore’s execution in 1977 prevented him from disrupting Mailer’s creation. Yet it’s a testament to The Executioner’s Song that, had Gilmore lived, I cannot imagine anything he might have done that would invalidate Mailer’s complex creation.
Mailer had his share of troubles nonetheless. When Jack Henry Abbott, a lifetime prisoner much like Gilmore, read an article in Time magazine from his prison cell about Mailer’s interest in Gilmore, he wrote to Mailer. Thus began their now-famous written correspondence, which developed into an intellectual camaraderie and a complicated friendship. Mailer helped Abbott get his letters published. Championed by Mailer, Abbott was paroled. He wrote the 1981 bestseller In the Belly of the Beast...read more