Books That Kicked My Ass – #5 The Executioner’s Song – Norman Mailer


So, every now and then, someone who I respect, someone who I have actual admiration for–heck, someone I like–asks me for a book recommendation. Now, don’t get me wrong, people ask  me for book recommendations all of the time–I’m an english teacher. And all kinds of people ask me this question: my barber, other teachers, friends of friends, people’s parents, the clerk at the post office, you name it. I usually rattle off the usual suspects and move the conversation to something I actually like to talk about… which is really, if I’m honest, nothing–I hate making small talk.

But, as I say, I was in a peculiar position: I had to recommend that someone who I care about should spend their hard-earned free time reading a book of my choosing.

No pressure.

The choice was clear: The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer. Over a thousand pages long and, when not being read, of a weight and stature to be used as a suitable and effective doorstop. This thing is big, no lie.

But don’t listen to me, listen to this guy:

“I want to urge you, with all my being, that you must read The Executioner’s Song. I want to further guarantee that you will finish it. It’s the fastest 1,000 pages you will ever know.”

– Dave Eggers

That’s a pretty damn conclusive recommendation up there. But here’s the thing: I’m not a big fan of Dave Eggers’ work. I find his writing to be all right, but can’t help but associate him with a lot of, for lack of a better word, ‘hipster’ diversions such as fixed-gear bicycles, man-buns, artisan condiments (you know, that crap that sells for $25 and that are packed predictably and without irony in mason jars) and with bands like Wilco.

Boring. Wake me up when the Sominex® Revolution is over. (So I guess that’s my submission to McSweeny’s rejected. Sorry, Dave.)

But, boring (to me) or not, there are two reasons I included his recommendation:

  1. He’s absolutely correct: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song is a book that must be read.
  2. He’s a ‘somebody’: he’s a writer that folks, probably you, have actually heard of. (Unlike yours truly. Hey, the guy’s won more awards than… well, something that wins a lot of awards. He’s popular, this guy.)

Okay, snarky bullshit aside, take his advice and get your hands on this book–the sooner the better. And read the hell out of it. It really will be the fastest 1,000 pages you’ve ever read.

So what’s this phonebook-sized thing all about? Roughly, and simply, it’s about the events leading up to the execution of killer Gary Gilmore in 1977. While the story itself is remarkable–seriously, read this book!–it is also notable in that Gilmore was the first person to be executed in nearly ten years in the United States. He was the first to be executed after the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1976. You could say that Gilmore opened the races again–the U.S. has since then been putting its citizens to death with a zeal, vigour, and frequency that is statistically impressive.

Buy why should you park however long it takes you to chip away about a 1,000 pages of reading? Two reasons.

  1. The story is at once bewildering and heartbreaking. You will find the reading by turns uncomfortable, exhilarating, damning, and, more than anything, you will recognize yourself in the largely unappealing ‘characters’ that inhabit this story.
  2. The writing. Dear god, the writing. Norman Mailer simply manhandles the English language in this book and makes it do whatever the fuck he wants it to do–proper grammar and writing rules be damned. And, please, understand something: my use of profanity and silly hyperbole here is completely on purpose and thematically consistent with the experience you will have with his delivery. Mailer, in this book, is like an orchestra conductor who shows up to the podium in his tux and with his hair neatly combed, but breaks his baton and terrorizes the musicians two measures into the overture, leaving both the performers and the audience forever changed. To say this book kicked my ass would be the understatement of all understatements. I’ve been an english, literature, and writing teacher for nearly two decades–I’ve read everyone, probably twice–and I would confidently put Mailer’s writing in this book against any other book or author in any kind of competition. Period.


Asshole? Genius? Both?

But, Steve, Norman Mailer was an asshole.

Yup. It’s true. Norman Mailer was an asshole. Completely. He was gruff, rude, a narcissist, a terrible womanizer, aggressive, macho, had several extramarital affairs, and was guilty of about a hundred other unflattering things of note. If this matters to you, he had a pretty hairy personal life. He was, for example, married six times and fathered nine children. Now, depending on what side of the coin you want to look at, he either was such an asshole that he got divorced five times and left several children in broken homes, or he had a strong belief in the institution of marriage and was optimistic about relationships. Heck, maybe he loved being a father.

Personally, I think he sounds like a real dick.

But, asshole or no, this guy could write. And, for your sake, I would strongly urge you to couch–as I similarly have in a previous blog post about a different artist–your reservations about Mr. Mailer’s movements in his personal life, and focus entirely on his art. Your restraint will be amply rewarded.

Look, I could, as is my usual routine, give you the story of how I got into this book, but I won’t–it’s simply not very interesting. I found a really shitty copy–a small paperback, with nearly microscopic print and a shape that made the book resemble a very tall brick–in a box of books at a school I worked at. It was jammed into a box of unused library books that were going to be thrown out–in the trash.

I had read other Mailer books, notably, The Naked and the Dead, and liked them, so I opened it up and went to read the first page. The truth is, this copy was so unwieldy, so inconvenient to read–what with the print being so small and the small paperback being comically thick due to its length–that I didn’t think I would get past  a page or two. I mean, I had to actually squint to read the type.

But I read the first page.

Then the next.

Then the next.

And, soon, I was hundreds of pages in, eschewing work, nutrition, and sleep in favour of reading this book. In the end, I was left shaken, moved, and I was actually amazed. And let me be clear, ‘amazed’ is a word that I think is overly used, abused, and normally tossed around with no regard to its definition. But make no mistake, I was actually amazed by this book. The writing is so completely masterful, the story so clear, so heartbreaking, so horrifying, that I couldn’t recall an experience anywhere near this from reading any other book.

Dave Eggers is right. Listen to him. He’s somebody. It really will be the fastest 1,000 pages you ever read. Me? I don’t have any coming-of-age story to tell you this time–only this: If you want your ass kicked by a complete master at the top of their game… get your hands on this book.

And prepare to read the shit out of it.








  1. Vena · October 7, 2016

    I am an Eggers fan….ever since “What is the What”, so undoubtedly would follow a book he recommends….but with your engaging persuasion of exploring the Mailer world….perhaps I shall indulge.
    Still thinking about that very riveting piece on The Exorcist……


  2. Mullen's Movies · October 16, 2016

    How did I miss THIS post? Great endorsement for what (so far) is a fantastic read. Also, whoever you lent it to is sure to be honoured by your kind words 🙂


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