Academic journal article The Mailer Review

In the Deserts of the Heart: The Executioner's Song

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

In the Deserts of the Heart: The Executioner's Song

Article excerpt

WHEREIN LIES THE "EXCEPTIONAL" NATURE OF THE UNITED STATES? How do we solve what Dave Eggers calls "the enigma of America" (xiii)? Amid America's political and cultural conflict, shall we find any kind of consensus? What relevance does Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1979) have to American identity in this second decade of the third millennium CE? This last question may seem to be a strange one. After all, Mailer's work--receiving the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction--is connected to a complex web of events arising from two murders committed by Gary Gilmore (1940-1977). These occurred in July 1976, while the USA was awash in celebrations of the Bicentennial, conscious--maybe--of a shared understanding of national identity. It is doubtful if we possess a shared understanding today, but an attempt must be made. (1)


The setting of the murders is the State of Utah. Geographically, western Utah is part of the Great Basin--the largest desert region of the United States. (2) The murders, it is true, took place in Provo and Orem, two cities south of Salt Lake City. (3) But in Utah the desert is never far away. (4) In my title, I use the phrase "the deserts of the heart," believing that it highlights significant themes in ES. The phrase comes from the poet W. H.Auden (1907-1973), who concludes his 1939 poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" with these words,

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise. (Selected Poems 83)

This poem has provoked "extraordinary elegiac conversations of our time" (Martyris). (5) But Auden's phrase provides us a useful metaphor illustrating the life and death of Gary Gilmore. The phrase suggests also a larger American mythology.

The name Gary Gilmore has a strange resonance. For later generations, his name may signify nothing. The facts are unremarkable. On April 9, 1976, Gary Gilmore was released on parole from the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, IL (ES 1087). Gilmore was thirty-five, having spent half his life in reform school or prison. Arriving in Provo, Utah, he was welcomed by a cousin, Brenda Nicol, her husband Johnny, and later by his aunt and uncle, Vern and Ida Damico. Soon Gilmore met and had an intense but stormy relationship with the beautiful Nicole Baker.

Just a hundred days after his release, despite help from family and others, Gilmore in cold blood murdered two men--Max Jensen on July 19th at a gas station in Orem and Ben Bushnell on July 20th in a motel in Provo. Gilmore's sojourn was in strong Mormon country. (6) After the killings, he was quickly arrested: most in the community--even his own family--suspected that Gilmore was responsible. When Ida asked Vern about the killings, he answered, "Yeah, he did it, the stupid shit" (ES 267). It was America's Bicentennial.

On October 5, 1976 the trial began for the murder of one of the victims, Ben Bushnell. It took place in "Judge Bullock's courtroom, 310 in the Utah County Building, largest edifice in downtown Provo, a gray, massive, old lion of a legal temple..." (ES 431). From today's vantage point, the trial was over quickly--in just three days. Perhaps little defense was possible: certainly none was offered by his lawyers--Craig Snyder and Mike Esplin--provoking Gary's understandable anger. (7) On the third day of the trial, October 7th, the Jury "brought back a verdict of Guilty in the First Degree" (453).

That same afternoon, the second part of the legal process began--the Mitigation Hearing--to determine whether Gilmore would receive life in prison or the death sentence. (8) The verdict was death. "The Jury was polled. In turn, each one of the twelve said: Yes, and Gary looked across atVern and Ida and shrugged. When the Judge asked him, 'Do you have an election as to the mode of death?' Gary said,'I prefer to be shot'" (467). Gilmore's execution, scheduled originally by Judge Bullock for November 15th, presented several notable features,

The death penalty had been reinstated in 1976, after a ten-year
moratorium, and Gilmore was the first person executed in the modern era
of capital punishment in America. … 
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