The Prisoner as Creator in
"The Executioner's Song"

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his
hands full in trying to understand, and then describe
, and then make
credible much of the American reality. It stupefies
, it sickens,
it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to
one own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing
our talents
, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that
are the envy of any novelist.


Philip Roth's description of the American writer's dilemma in 1961 is still accurate after twenty years. One response to this dilemma is the blend of journalism and fiction labeled the new journalism, "faction," or, in the case of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song ( 1979), "a true life novel." This work has drawn criticism on two predictable fronts: as part of the general debate over the merits of the new journalism, the story's truth is questioned by reviewers; as a portrait of a cold-blooded murderer, the novel creates doubt about the value of writing 1000 pages "about unredeemed sociopathic behavior" ( Atlantic, Jan. 1980).

A response to these serious criticisms must confront the basic question, what is a true life novel? Although Mailer's study of Gary

From The Midwest Quarterly 4, vol. 24 (Summer 1983). Copyright © 1983 by Pittsburgh State University.


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Norman Mailer


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