Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Pretty Creepy Stuff

After reading The Executioner's Song, I felt restless. I walked around my house and thought about it. That's kind of what I do when I'm obsessing about something. Feed the cats, water the plants, stare out the window at the fallen snow, while something tickles my brain. The book raised so many questions, and answered so few. Perhaps, that was it's purpose. Probably.

With so many loose ends, my mind was left with a craving for resolution, a need to make sense out of the senseless; I couldn't leave it alone. Besides, as inspiration/research for Umbra, I was left empty handed. Mailer wrote The Executioner's Song in a Hemingway-esque style. Lots of cutting. What happened before, what came after, is told through the hazy filter of statements of the involved parties, accepted as fact.

And that felt unsatisfying. So, I searched for more thorough answers and found: Shot In the Heart. It's a book written by Gary Gilmore's youngest brother. About ten pages in, I felt Mailer had robbed us of vital truth by excising the nine months of Gary's life from the bulk of the 34 plus years before. The severing of present from past created a story with little intrinsic meaning. No matter how fashionable it might be to focus upon surface details and statements alone, emotionally and psychologically, perhaps even spiritually, it's the equivalent of literary junk food. There's no meaning and thus no nourishment. That's fine, but at a more fundamental level it's a lie.

I have to say, if you've read The Executioner's Song, then Shot In the Heart should be read as a companion. The Executioner's Song is the husk, Shot In the Heart is the seed. The Gilmore family life was horrific. Gary Gilmore was a devastating intersection of nature vs. nurture. To the worst qualities of both his parents, he added a few of his own.

It made me think of two things: We're all tips of an iceberg, our personal histories, and our family legacies buoyant beneath the surface. And yet, there is a line we each must cross to become individuals, and that is the line where we assimilate our family legacies, the riches and shameful qualities, and move into taking responsibility for our own actions.

The other thing is this: Every family has its dark aspect. Since the past can never be undone, simple acceptance seems to be the only real avenue to moving forward. But the journey to bedrock acceptance is fraught. Along the way religions, psychologists, social workers, politicians, and well-meaning others insert their philosophies.

The dark aspects of Gilmore's family were ferocious. Gary Gilmore's mother was Mormon. Polygamy and Blood Atonement, early precepts of the Mormon Church, infiltrated his family. Although his father wasn't Mormon, for practical purposes he practiced polygamy. Gary's mother and her four sons were the last in a long line of many wives and families that Frank Gilmore left scattered across the country. As for Gary's insistence that he be executed by firing squad, it fulfilled the Mormon ideal of Blood Atonement. Pretty creepy stuff.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Your Man is Far Gone

How did I end up reading The Executioner's Song during the last week of the year? It was a circuitous route to be sure. I came across an article on line, Happy F**ckin' Birthday (with Apologies to Norman Mailer) by none other than Monica Lewinsky. Apparently, they ran in the same circles. (Or she and his children did...) In the article, Lewinsky writes that during college as a psychology major, out of all Mailer's books, The Executioner's Song had the greatest impact on her. I became curious. Then I bought it for my kindle. The Foreword by Dave Eggers is pretty glow-y, as far as what Mailer accomplished as an author.

Then I began reading, and I admit, I was hooked, and read the entire thing, finishing it on, of all nights, Christmas Eve. It left me quiet and thoughtful. The first thing that came to mind was how un-dated it is. Gary Gilmore was killed by firing squad on January 17, 1977. This same story could have been told almost forty years later. Except that there were at least seven executions in the United States in 2014. What if Norman Mailer had written a 1000 page book about the life story of each of those seven? How similar, or dissimilar, would those stories have been to the one told in The Executioner's Song?

I asked myself that question, because when all is said and done, Gary Gilmore, as in individual, did not strike me as someone distinctly worthy of the place in the limelight that The Executiioner's Song afforded him. I suspect there are people who have been executed after him who have more interesting stories and/or personalities. But Gilmore was the first to be killed by the state after a moratorium of a  decade. His insistence that his death be carried out, in spite of the ACLU, NAACP and other "interested parties" filing lawsuits against it, was perhaps, the single distinguishing characteristic of his entire life story. And yet, that insistence was likely due to what emerged as his two predominant character traits: Impatience and defiance. A man who spent the majority of his life, I mean the majority—20 plus years out of 35 on the planet—Gilmore managed to commit two murders in cold blood, get convicted of one and sentenced to death, and be executed in nine short months, between April 1976 and January 17, 1977.

If I were asked to distill The Executioner's Song into five words or less, I would use a quote from the book itself. A statement made by Pete Galovan to Nicole Baker, "Your man is far gone."

Impatient and Defiant. I'll add hollow. Hateful. Contemptuous. And charming. Gary Gilmore was a con man through and through.

So why are these grim subjects on my radar at this Supposed-To-Be-Joyous time of the year?

In the midst of working through revisions of Isolt's Enchantment and Half Mortal, I find myself mentally preparing to write the final book of the Daughter of Light trilogy, War & Grace... and as I meditate on Umbra... I find myself scavenging the dark.