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 and became a darling of the New York literati. Susan Sarandon named her son after him. Released to literary fame, Abbott spent time with Mailer in Cape Cod, before transitioning to his halfway home. But after six weeks of freedom, Abbott stabbed and killed a 22-year-old waiter. Why? The waiter had told him that he couldn’t use the bathroom in the kitchen, an insurance issue.
The morning after Abbott murdered the waiter, in an extraordinarily unfortunate case of bad timing, the New York Times Book Review published a glowing review of In the Belly of the Beast, comparing Abbott to author Jean Genet, and highlighting passages, including Abbott’s description of a dying man: “They always whisper one thing at the end: ‘Please.’ You get the odd impression he is not imploring you not to harm him, but to do it right.” Mailer’s seeming lack of remorse for his active role in Abbott’s release disgusted many, yet Mailer later claimed this experience to be one of the lowest points in his life. A project based on the relationship between Mailer and Abbott is in the works at HBO.
Eggers is far more adored as a person than Mailer, and, by all accounts, he’s a great guy, co-founding nonprofit tutorial centers, establishing charitable foundations, and raising awareness of social injustice through his nonprofit Voice of Witness series, among other selfless endeavors. With his widely praised and award-winning nonfictional Zeitoun, Eggers hoped to shed light on “one of the worst natural disasters in American history and the problematic tendrils of the war on terror.” Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American, spent 23 days in jail, wrongly accused of terrorist activity, after his post-Katrina heroics.
Eggers’s Zeitoun is a loving family man — peaceful, calm, and devoted to his wife. Jonathan Demme’s animated film based on Eggers’s book might have to be put on hold, considering Zeitoun’s post-publication spate of domestic battery charges, which includes punching his now ex-wife in the back of her head and striking her with a tire iron; and even more so now that Zeitoun has been in jail since July 25.
On November 8th, a state grand jury in Orleans Parish indicted Zeitoun for allegedly trying to kill Ms. Zeitoun and then ordering a hit on her from behind bars. The indictment replaces several other charges against Zeitoun, in an effort to speed the way to a trial, averting a preliminary hearing. Zeitoun remains in jail, with bail set at more than one million dollars.
“If he’s released from jail,” Assistant District Attorney Lauren Faveret asked Ms. Zeitoun in court, “would you be fearful for your life?”
“I’d be dead,” Ms. Zeitoun replied.
The first degree charges stem from additional factors: Ms. Zeitoun had a restraining order in place before the beating, and that Abdulrahman Zeitoun allegedly ordered other hits — on Ms. Zeitoun’s son and another man — from jail.
Ms. Zeitoun claimed in one interview that Eggers’s depiction was accurate at the time, but that her husband had subsequently become angrier and more violent, and his Islamic views more radical. Yet Ms. Zeitoun has a financial stake in Eggers’s creation through the Zeitoun Foundation. “All author proceeds from this book go to the Zeitoun Foundation,” reads the beginning of a clearly stated note at the end of Zeitoun, which is followed by a list of nonprofit organizations that will also receive the proceeds. Ms. Zeitoun has since testified in court that she suffered abuse from the beginning of their marriage in 1994, up until the storm, and afterward.
Eggers worked closely with the Zeitouns, and he credits the book as a partnership of sorts. “With a book like this,” he explains in a Q & A on the Foundation’s website, “I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible.” When he finished chapters, he’d send them to the Zeitouns for accuracy, and they went over the manuscript “six or seven” times, leading one to ponder: If you had editorial privilege over your own story, would you whitewash? Would you be tempted to be more heroic, smarter, prettier, kinder, funnier, friendlier, and on and on?
An unspoken contract exists between the author and his or her subject. This exchange has ever-changing values and implications for both the observer and the observed, especially when the author and subject become intimate through the creation, and someone steps outside and beyond it.
Eggers’s Zeitoun serves Eggers’s story, while Mailer’s Gilmore is endlessly complex, and that is the story. Eggers’s Zeitoun is a heroic and selfless creation, kind and gentle, and his detainment by the authorities makes for a beautiful tale of injustice. But now a far more complex Zeitoun has walked off the page, without a political and moral agenda, borderless and uncontainable.