JULY 23, 2017
ON A STEAMY Friday evening in July 1981, Jack Abbott went out with two female friends. Abbott had been released from prison six weeks earlier; although freedom still made him anxious, he liked to go out dancing anyway. Sometime after 5:00 a.m., the three of them stopped by the 24-hour Binibon Cafe in New York’s East Village for a snack. Abbott asked the restaurant’s manager, a 22-year-old aspiring playwright named Richard Adan, if he could use the employee bathroom. Adan said no, and Abbott got angry. Adan then offered to show him a spot in the alley outside where he could relieve himself, and the two men stepped outside.
What happened over the next few minutes became the defining story of Abbott’s life, one he spent his remaining years telling and retelling: at his murder trial, in a high-profile 60 Minutes interview, and in My Return, a book he published in 1987. Over the years, Abbott’s account of exactly what happened in that alley shifted. At times, he said that Adan challenged him to a fight, or that he thought Adan wanted to fight; that’s what “step outside” meant in the world he came from. He claimed that Adan had a knife (though no such weapon would ever be found), or that he thought Adan had a knife. The end of the story, though, was always the same: Abbott grabbed Adan from behind and stabbed him in the chest, nearly severing his heart. Abbott rushed back in the restaurant, told his friends he’d just killed a man, and dashed out again. The women stood shocked on the street corner until the police arrived.
The next day, there was an article about Abbott in The New York Times, but it wasn’t about the murder; that account didn’t make it to print until the following day. Instead, it was a review of Abbott’s first book, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison. The book, which featured a laudatory introduction from Norman Mailer, detailed a life spent under institutional control. After a childhood spent in foster homes, Abbott had been sent to a school for juvenile delinquents at age 12; at 19, he was sent to prison for writing stolen checks, and (except for a brief escape, during which he robbed a bank) spent the next 18 years of his life behind bars. In the Belly of the Beast was an attempt to convey “the sensations — the atmospheric pressure, you might say — of what it is to be seriously a long-term prisoner in an American prison,” Abbott wrote. His account of trying to maintain an unbroken spirit in an environment of brutality was, the Times declared, “completely compelling.”
The juxtaposition of these two events — the publication of a well-reviewed memoir and the impulsive murder of a stranger — made it tempting to read Abbott’s life as a modern-day Greek tragedy. A brilliant but troubled man is released from prison and granted a second chance; but fate has other plans for him, and within weeks, he commits a crime that sends him back behind bars for the rest of his life. In classical tragedy, the audience’s pleasure comes in part from knowing more than the characters, and as news of Adan’s murder spread, people were quick to adopt the smug confidence of hindsight. Early reviews of In the Belly of the Beast, the ones written before Abbott killed Adan, were largely positive, praising Abbott for his “remarkable” prose; the book was “touched by greatness,” a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times wrote. But once Abbott was wanted for murder, reviewers suddenly found his writing overblown and arrogant; Jack Beatty in the New Republic, for instance, called it “disturbing” and criticized Abbott’s “baby-talk Marxist jabber.”
Subject to even more vitriol than the murderer himself was the man who helped get him out of prison: Norman Mailer. Three years before he stabbed Adan, Abbott — then incarcerated in a federal penitentiary in Utah — wrote Mailer a letter. “An author will receive as many as several hundred letters a year from strangers,” Mailer wrote later, in his introduction to In the Belly of the Beast. “Usually they want something.” Abbott made an impression on Mailer because he made precisely the opposite gesture: instead of asking for a favor, Abbott offered to help. He’d read that Mailer was working on a book about the murderer Gary Gilmore — the book that would eventually become The Executioner’s Song — and warned him that most writers did a terrible job describing prison. It was a world with its own coded meanings and logic, and one that most writers had no access to. Abbott, who described himself as “a state-raised convict,” offered Mailer insight into the physical, psychological, and spiritual violence that saturated prison life. To Mailer, the letter must have seemed providential. By the time Mailer started working on The Executioner’s Song, Gilmore had already been executed; he and Mailer never spoke. Abbott, who, like Gilmore, had spent the majority of his life shuttling between reform schools and jail cells, offered a kind of access by proxy.
Mailer was struck, moreover, by Abbott’s forceful, declamatory writing style. “Abbott had his own voice,” Mailer wrote in the introduction to In the Belly of the Beast. “I had heard no other like it.” The two men struck up an asymmetrical correspondence: Abbott sending 20-page handwritten letters, Mailer replying only occasionally, and sometimes through his secretary, but always with genuine encouragement and enthusiasm. He also connected Abbott with the wider literary community. Within a couple of years, Abbott’s letters from prison were being excerpted in The New York Review of Books; soon, he signed a contract for In the Belly of the Beast with Random House.
This unqualified embrace of Abbott was just one example of the literary establishment’s flirtation with radical politics in the 1970s. It was the era of “radical chic,” to borrow a contemporaneous phrase from Tom Wolfe, and as the Vietnam War wound down the prison reform movement became one of the causes of choice. In 1973, the novelist Jerzy Kosinski, another of Abbott’s pen pals, became president of PEN and reactivated the organization’s prisoners’ program. The New York Review of Books, in addition to publishing Abbott, also printed letters from prison revolutionary George Jackson; its editor, Robert Silvers, even wrote a letter of support for Abbott when he was up for parole.
Abbott’s transition to life outside after his release in 1981 was not a smooth one. “I came from max. security — after 3 years of solitary — straight away into that artificial monster called Manhattan,” Abbott wrote to Mailer in 1982, after he’d landed himself back in prison. The relationship between the two men, following Abbott’s release, was rocky. Mailer, it turned out, dealt better with Abbott at a distance; as a prisoner, he was a potent symbol of injustice, but as a parolee he was angsty, needy, and difficult to be around. Mailer, absorbed in his own projects, left much of the responsibility for managing Abbott to his then wife, Norris Church, who remembered Abbott as “slim, neat, and nervous.” When he dined with the Mailers he ate quickly and hardly spoke; at cocktail parties he always stood in the corner, never showing his back to the room. Freedom didn’t dispel his paranoia or anxiety. Mailer’s 24-year-old daughter, Danielle, recalled him having the intensity of a “caged animal.” “He was a man in a different universe,” his editor Erroll McDonald said, or “a fish out of a fishbowl,” according to another Random House employee.
After Abbott stabbed Adan, he fled to Mexico, but was caught a few months later. His highly publicized 1982 trial was attended by Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, and a host of tabloid writers. The public outrage Adan’s murder inspired wasn’t just about the senseless death of a young man; it was also an excuse to indict Mailer, and the whole cultural establishment, for their radical posturing. “When Abbott’s trial in Manhattan began in January 1982, Mailer went on trial as well, it seemed,” Loving writes, at least “as far as the angry press was concerned.” An editorial in Time criticized Mailer for his apparent belief that “the law should set up separate standards for artists,” sarcastically suggesting a “panel of literary judges to meet the first Monday at Elaine’s in Manhattan.” Beatty used his New Republic review of In the Belly of the Beast to slam Mailer for swooning over criminals: “This from a man who probably hasn’t ridden a subway in 30 years and whose idea of violence is a catty confrontation with Gore Vidal.”
But Mailer stood his ground. Despite the public pressure to distance himself, Mailer once again advocated for Abbott, arguing that he could safely be released in a few years once he’d served out his (deserved, in Mailer’s mind) manslaughter conviction. “There’s an attitude now in America, ‘let’s bring the law and order, let’s get rid of all these criminals, all these people who knife people, who shoot people.’ It’s too easy,” Mailer told reporters outside the trial. “A democracy involves taking risks.” This plea for leniency did not go over well. The next day, the front page of the New York Post featured a photo of a haggard, mustachioed Abbott next to the headline Norman Mailer shocker: I’D HELP THE KILLER AGAIN.
In Jack and Norman: A State-Raised Convict and the Legacy of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, Texas A&M English professor Jerome Loving sets out to tell the story of “an author and his apprentice […] of literary influence and tragedy […] [and] the story of incarceration in America.” Loving weaves together many different strands, including a brief history of prisons in the United States, a literary analysis of some of Mailer’s books, and synopses of the lives of Gilmore, Abbott, and Mailer. The book shifts modes from literary criticism to biography to historical reportage, which allows Loving to highlight surprising points of connection across the three men’s lives. But he largely relies on secondary sources, and his book sometimes suffers from a hasty, summarized feeling; its commitment to breadth sacrifices a sense of intimacy.
Loving is also prone to moralizing: difficult to avoid when dealing with such lurid material, perhaps, but disappointing for those looking for a more nuanced account of the case. He echoes those who criticized Mailer at the time of Abbott’s trial, scolding him for not knowing in advance that Abbott would cause trouble upon release, and repeatedly chides Mailer for his hubris in advocating for Abbott’s release, calling it “the second great error of his life.” (The first was the time he stabbed his first wife, Adele.) “Mailer must — or should — have wondered whether this encaged genius could ever be safely freed,” Loving writes. My comments in the margin get extra-exclamatory at these moments: It’s more complicated than that!! For one, Abbott was already up for early release (perhaps because he snitched on other prisoners); there’s a good chance he would’ve been freed even without Mailer championing him. Gary Gilmore, after all, had been granted parole without any celebrity endorsements. Surely Loving wouldn’t want to keep every person with a history of violence in prison forever? Or maybe he’s trying to suggest that artists get in over their heads when they start messing about with criminal justice issues; but if the answer then is that writers should avoid potentially fraught advocacy, well, that’s a depressing conclusion indeed. More than anything else, Abbott’s story reads like an argument for robust services and support for those recently released from prison so they’re not reliant on the intermittent, destabilizing goodwill of people like Norman Mailer.
Though Loving appears to share the press’s scorn for it, Mailer’s ongoing support of Abbott throughout his murder trial inspired in me a grudging kind of respect. Unlike the New York socialites that Wolfe pillories, dilettantes who backed away when their activists of choice got too unruly, Mailer stuck with his protégé — well, up to a point. When Abbott was sent back to prison, Mailer initially sent him encouraging letters: “you may be at the beginning of some years of serious writing, and who knows, after the experience of the last twelve months … maybe once you have gone through the endless labors of digesting these profound highs and lows, well maybe you’ll be writing better than ever.”
But Abbott’s story no longer had a satisfying narrative arc. His letters to Mailer became less charming; he obsessed endlessly about that moment in the alleyway, blaming Adan for his own death and recasting the story so that he was the true victim. And his prospects for getting out of prison were slim to none, making him less attractive as a cause célèbre. Mailer’s letters soon dwindled. Before long, Mailer confesses: “I hardly knew what to say to you anymore.” In 1986, Mailer refused to write an afterword for Abbott’s second book, claiming that further public association with Mailer would only hurt Abbott’s reputation (when, of course, it was truer the other way around). The times were changing more broadly, and radical critiques of mass incarceration no longer had the same cultural cachet. In the years after Abbott’s trial, Mailer published a sexy book about Ancient Egypt, and then a noir thriller. The New York Review of Books, which had infamously printed a Molotov cocktail on its cover in 1967, moved to the center.
In 2002, Abbott hanged himself after being denied parole. “His life was tragic from beginning to end,” Mailer wrote in a statement. “I never knew a man who had a worse life. What made it doubly awful is that he brought down on one young man full of promise and left a bomb crater of lost possibilities for many, including most especially himself.” It’s revealing that, decades later, Mailer still saw Abbott’s life as a story about unfulfilled artistic promise. He had always viewed Abbott in terms of his creative potential: “I’m willing to gamble with the safety of certain elements of society to save this man’s talent,” he said at the post-trial press conference. Mailer’s biggest mistake, it seems to me, was seeing the tragedy of Abbott’s life as being primarily about Abbott. Romanticizing outlaws is not the same as offering sustained critique of a structural phenomenon. And, as Mailer learned, those outlaws are more easily romanticized from a safe distance; get too close, and suddenly you’re within the blast range yourself.