From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 26 Nov 2002

Norman Mailer has been mentioned in the last few days in the midst of the latest dustup over Ellroy. It was more of Mailer being an example of mainstream literature than any similarity between the two. But for me there is one similarity. At different times their public persona made it difficult for me to read and evaluate their fiction objectively.

I have in the past told of seeing Ellroy at a long-ago Bouchercon and how off-putting I found him. I won't repeat what's in the archives.

With Mailer, I read quite a bit of him many years ago and rather liked him. Yes, he was a big self-promoter but he could definitely write and, at his worse, he didn't bore. Then he began to turn up on the talk show circuit and that form of self-promotion was harder to take. His writing also deteriorated (in my opinion) about the same time.

Mailer has long dabbled in filming and I went to a showing of his "Maidstone" some time in the early 1970s. Mailer was there but before he spoke we had to watch the movie, which was for me an exhausting chore. It was a self-indulgent mess featuring a mixture of Mailer buddies, such as boxer Jose Torres, and professional actors like Rip Torn. I hated it.

Afterward Mailer spoke and the audience was packed with feminists who interrupted him and baited him to his obvious enjoyment. Tensions were high and voices were raised. A man came out of the audience and stalked up to Mailer and we all thought a fight was about to erupt. Certainly, Mailer did as he backed away from the mike and assumed a fighting pose. But the guy ignored Mailer, grabbed the mike and said with great seriousness, "Joni Mitchell has the sweetest pussy in the world." He left the stage with the glow of a man who had accomplished a great thing. Puzzled, Mailer regained the mike and bemusedly asked the audience "Who the hell is Joni Mitchell?"

I was, of course, shocked at his ignorance but more importantly the evening cemented the image of Mailer as someone who had done his best work and was now floundering around as a public personality.

Jump forward a few years. A Hollywood producer sews up the Gary Gilmore story and hires Mailer to write the book. So as a work-for-hire, Mailer produced THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG in 1979. For those who might not know the background, Gilmore was the first person executed in the United States after a long moratorium. At some point after the book came out, I was selected as a media witness to an execution by electrocution in Georgia. Although the execution came within hours of taking place twice, last minute stays came through and I was the second most relieved guy involved.

But expecting that I would be a witness, I bought and read THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG not because I had any great expectations or really any desire to read Mailer but almost as homework for my upcoming assignment.

The novel immediately surprised me because it was not in Mailer's "voice." Everything I had read by Mailer before was immediately identifiable as his work. In some of the later writings, he was in the reader's face on every page. Here the writing was straightforward, almost flat. For someone attuned to Mailer before that absence was a big shock.

The next shock was the quality of the book. It was far and away the best thing I had ever read by Mailer. More than that, I considered THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG as one of the great American novels of the 20th century. I still hold that opinion although more than two decades have passed since that reading.

So don't pass on THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG because you don't like the writer or hated his other work. I only read it because of unusual circumstances. If I had not been selected to witness an execution myself, I would never have read such a long book by a writer I had come to dismiss. It is a powerful, uniquely American novel that tells the story of Gilmore but so much more.

Now don't ask me to defend it further as it has been twenty years and I am now busy reading Cleve F. Adams for 1940s month. Read THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG and report back with your own view.

Richard Moore

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