The Executioner's Song

The Executioner's Song
Image source: Google

Rating: 3.9/5

Author: Norman Miller

Paperback: 1136 pages

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; Reprint edition (8 May 2012)

Language: English

Genre: Contemporary fiction

ISBN-10: 044658438X

ISBN-13: 978-0446584388

Cost: Rs. 1475 (Paperback), Rs. 630 (Kindle)


Arguably the greatest book from America's most heroically ambitious writer, THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG follows the short, blighted life of Gary Gilmore who became famous after he robbed two men in 1976 and killed them in cold blood. After being tried and convicted, he immediately insisted on being executed for his crime. To do so, he fought a system that seemed intent on keeping him alive long after it had sentenced him to death. And that fight for the right to die is what made him famous.

Notable for its portrayal of Gilmore and the anguish generated by the murders he committed, the book was central to the national debate over the revival of capital punishment by the Supreme Court. Gilmore was the first person to be executed in the United States since the re-instatement of the death penalty in 1976.


"The Executioner's Song" is structured in two long symphonic movements: "Western Voices," or Book One, voices which are most strongly voices of women, and "Eastern Voices," Book Two, voices which are not literally those of Easterners but are largely those of men--the voices of the lawyers, the prosecutors, the reporters, the people who move in the larger world and believe that they can influence events. The "Western" book is a tension, an overwhelming and passive rush toward the inevitable events that will end in Gary Gilmore's death. The "Eastern" book is the release of that tension, the resolution, the playing out of the execution, the active sequence that effectively ends on the January morning when Lawrence Schiller goes up in a six-seat plane and watches as Gary Gilmore's ashes are let loose from a plastic bag to blow over Provo.

The women in the "Western" book are surprised by very little. A kind of desolate wind seems to blow through the lives of these women in "The Executioner's Song," all these women who have dealings with Gary Gilmore from the April night when he lands in town with his black plastic penitentiary shoes until the day in January when he is just ash blowing over Provo.

Based almost entirely on interviews with the family and friends of both Gilmore's and his victims', the book is exhaustive in its approach.

In his analysis of The Executioner's Song, critic Mark Edmundson said:

from the point where Gilmore decides that he is willing to die, he takes on a certain dignity [...] Gilmore has developed something of a romantic faith. Gilmore's effort, from about the time he enters prison, is to conduct himself so that he can die what he would himself credit as a 'good death'.

Milestones of the book:

  • The Executioner's Song won the Playboy writing award in 1979.
  • The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980.
  • It was a finalist for the 1980 National Book Award.


  • The Executioner's Song is also the title of a poem by Mailer, published in ‘Fuck You’magazine in September 1964 and reprinted in Cannibals and Christians (1966), and the title of one of the chapters of his 1974 novel The Fight.

Film Adaptation:

Mailer adapted a screenplay from the book for the eponymous 1982 television movie, which stars Tommy Lee Jones (who won an Emmy for the role), Eli Wallach, Pat Corley, Christine Lahti, and Rosanna Arquette, and was directed by Lawrence Schiller. The character "Larry Samuels" in the film represents Mailer.

About the author:

Norman Mailer was born in 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. In 1955, he was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He is the author of more than thirty books, including The Naked and the Dead; The Armies of the Night, for which he won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; The Executioner's Song, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize. He died in 2007.