Why did I love this book?
Mailer’s novels from the 1960s-2007 are notoriously challenging, and I’ve seen readers wanting to see what Mailer is about sometimes make the mistake of starting with one of his more difficult, convoluted novels—Ancient Evenings or Harlot’s Ghost, for example. But The Executioner’s Song is thought by many critics to be not only his best novel (winning his second Pulitzer Prize), but his most readable, despite its length. It recounts the story and ultimate execution in January of 1977 of Gary Gilmore, who murdered two men during his release from prison on parole. But what Mailer does is work outward from that basic fact to go beyond the media circus that surrounded the case and the execution to try to understand Gilmore, his girlfriend Nicole, and the whole American setting—particularly the American West—that defined their lives.
Joan Didion’s wonderful review in the NYTBR said Mailer had written a book that captured “the authentic Western voice rarely heard in literature,” and she was the first to recognize that “the strongest voices in it are those of the women.” Only Mailer, she said, would have dared it, taken the risk. “This is an absolutely astonishing book,” Didion concluded. All this was accomplished by Mailer’s use of a flat, readable rhetoric, rather than his torrential, Melvillian style.