I am slowly but surely reading the 1100-page nonfiction book The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. I love reading mysteries and psychological thrillers (both nonfiction and fiction), and after telling a friend how much I loved In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, she recommended I try The Executioner’s Song. She said it would be the fastest 1000 pages I’d ever read, so I took her word for it. The book is a true story about a man named Gary Gilmore, who, after serving 13 years in prison for a robbery in Indiana, moved to Utah to live with his cousin. Right now, I am reading about his transition from prison back into the “free society,” but the Prologue reveals that Gilmore later murders two men in a robbery, and is eventually tried, sent to prison, and executed by firing squad for his crimes. His execution was significant because the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, so he was the first person in about a decade to get the death penalty. The more interesting part about this, to me, is that he actually demanded his execution and chose death by firing squad as the method.
One thing that I’ve been noticing while reading in terms of writer’s craft is Norman Mailer’s use of very succinct sentences. He does use vivid imagery when describing different settings in Utah, but even these sentences are brief and to the point, as opposed to flowing and verbose. Take, for example, this passage:
“Over dinner, Gary told stories about prison. Back in ’68, he had been in some prison riots, and a local TV crew selected him as one of the leaders and had him on television saying a few words. His looks, or something in the way he spoke, attracted attention. He got some mail out of it including a beautiful correspondence with this girl named Becky. He fell in love with her through her letters. Then she came to visit. She was so fat that she had to waddle through the door sideways. Yet he still liked her enough to want to marry her” (34).
To me, short sentences can make more of a statement than lengthy, eloquent prose. They force a reader to take in each word slowly and carefully. Sometimes, when I’m reading lengthy sentences, I’ve noticed that I read more quickly because I am skipping over or skimming some of the detail. I believe that Mailer writes in this style to normalize, or humanize, Gary. Since the reader knows from the beginning that he is a criminal — specifically a murderer — it would be natural for the reader to view Gary as some kind of monster. However, Mailer describes his feelings, thoughts, and actions in such a straightforward, objective way as to possibly remove judgment from the reader.
I am looking forward to moving on to the part of the book about Gary Gilmore’s romance with Nicole and his spiral into murder; I wonder if Mailer will continue the story in this style or if his diction and syntax might change as Gary changes.