in Primary


The Executioner’s Song. Boston: Little, Brown, 15 October; London: Hutchinson, 5 November. Nonfiction narrative on Gary Gilmore, 1056 pp., $16.95.

The Executioner's Song (1979)

Dedication: “To Norris, to John Buffalo, and to Scott Meredith.” Discarded titles: Violence in America, The Saint and the Psychopath, American Virtue. Mailer’s title is taken from his poem of the same title published in 1964 (see 64.18), and then used as the title of chapter 15 of The Fight (75.12). In 80.1 Mailer explains this borrowing and also notes that the “old prison rhyme” that prefaces The Executioner’s Song “is an old diddy [sic] from my movie ‘Maidstone’ [71.28] which was just perfect for the book.”

Although scrupulously factual, the book is described on its jacket, and the cover of the later softcover edition, as a “true life novel.” Validating this subtitle, it won the Playboy Writing Award for fiction in 1979 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980. Mailer is the only writer to win Pulitzers for fiction and nonfiction, the latter for The Armies of the Night (68.8). The Executioner’s Song was also nominated for the American Book Award for fiction (1980 as a hardcover, 1981 as a softcover) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1979.

Mailer, Philip Roth, William Styron and many other writers withdrew their books from the American Book Award competitions. See article by Michiko Kakutani, “Mailer, Styron and Roth Shun American Book Awards,” New York Times, 21 March, Sec. C, p. 28. In 1999, it was ranked number 72 on a list of the top 100 works of journalism of the twentieth century by 36 judges under the aegis of New York University’s journalism department. See “Journalism’s Greatest Hits: Two Lists of a Century’s Top Stories,” New York Times, 1 March 1999, Business Section, pp. 1, 13.

Mailer later wrote the screenplay for the film version of 79.14, which was nominated for an Emmy. The four-hour adaptation, staring Tommy Lee Jones and Eli Wallach, appeared on NBC-TV on 28 and 29 November 1982. Rpt: Three sections of the narrative appeared in a different form in Playboy (79.10, 79.19, 79.33). Excerpts from five chapters are reprinted in The Time of Our Time (98.7). See 68.8, 78.4, 1979 entries, 81.5, 82.22, 94.3, and 13.2, 503-22, 528-36.


You know, a painter may find something on the street that he thinks is incredible. Sometimes he’ll glue it right into the painting. It becomes part of the work. In The Executioner’s Song, newspaper stories became part of the painting and part of the transcript of the trial—a lot of found objects. I felt acted upon, in a funny way, while doing this book, by painting terms. It was as if I’d shifted from being an expressionist, not an abstract expressionist, but an expressionist—like [Charles] Munch, or Max Beckmann…those kinds of painters who worked with large exaggeration and murkiness and passionate power—into now being a photographic realist, even a photographic realist with found objects. The reason, I think, is that a painter like a writer sometimes gets to a point where he can no longer interpret what he sees. Then the act of painting what he literally sees becomes the aesthetic act. (80.10)