June 18, 2012

The Executioner's Song


by Norman Mailer


My preferred genre is fiction, and I hardly ever touch non-fiction books unless it is absolutely necessary (read: for work or for reference purposes). So it's a first time for me to pick up a non-fiction book just for the sheer pleasure of it. I buddy-read this book with Kuya Doni, the (senior) book club moderator, for exactly 14 days.

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The Executioner's Song is the true account of the life, conviction and eventually, execution of Gary Mark Gilmore, a 30-something convicted felon with an impressive prison track record (when he was executed, he had actually spent half of his life in prison) and who was found guilty of 2 counts of first-degree murder by the jury in the State of Utah. Mailer went into great detail narrating Gary's childhood, family background, commitment to a reform school as a teenager, subsequent incarceration for robbery, release on parole, relationship with Nicole, killing of two innocent men, and eventually, his trial, conviction, and execution through firing squad.

The book was readable from start to finish, with its straightforward, no-nonsense writing. The trouble with non-fiction, or books based on true events, however, is that no matter how readable they are, they tend to become (eventually) monotonous. While the author, as the designated narrator, can (of course) take liberties with the storytelling, or the manner in which he would lay out the events as they transpired, he is nonetheless still constrained to stick to the bare facts, making it somehow (or other) a chore to improve on the prose. Yes, this book was quite readable, but there were parts, especially in the second half, which bored me silly.


So, while I appreciated the great lengths into which Mailer went to narrate Gary's story as accurately as possible, I found that there were some unnecessary characters and details that merely prolonged the novel, but which served no other purpose than to delay the inevitable.

What I truly liked about the book, however, was that I got to learn a thing or two about US criminal justice system, which added to what little I already know. Now I know the difference between First- and Second-Degree Murders, and I got acquainted with what they call the Next Friend petition, which we don't have in the Philippines.

Death penalty is a sensitive issue and a real topic of concern, and since it was abolished in the Philippines in 2006 by the enactment of Republic Act 9346, the sentences of the inmates in death row have been commuted to either life imprisonment or reclusion perpetua. My personal view on the subject, however, hasn't changed. I always put myself in the shoes of the family of the victim of a convicted felon – whether it be of rape or murder. In Gary Gilmore's case, I try to envision myself in the position of the wife (or family) of Max Jensen or Benny Bushnell, and I can't be certain that I would not be one of those who would oppose the execution. It's just a matter of perspective. 

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