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The 15-Minute Pulitzer: A book nothing like Airplane!, except …

by Craig B | Feb 26, 2018

Book Review: Norman Mailer's winner of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Executioner's Song

cover for film, The Executioner's Song, based on Norman Mailer's novel of the same nameI don’t have strong opinions about New Journalism, though I think there are some pretty strong opinions floating around out there (think Truman Capote vs. Lester Markel), but I have been kicking around the idea that in some way the act of New Journalism does what in theatre they call breaking the fourth wall; that moment when a performer looks out at the audience and addresses them directly.  One of my favorite examples of this can be found in the early moments of the classic comedy, Airplane! when Robert Hays looks at the camera and lets us know just exactly how he feels.  For me, in New Journalism (and I’m going to err on the side of capitalizing it, despite its detractors), there’s something about the “facts” it incorporates that seem to constantly address the reader (who is ostensibly reading just a novel) with assertions of, “and yes, this really did happen,” that breaks the “fourth wall.”  These “facts” keep highlighting the relationship readers have with the storyteller in a way that is almost “meta” (not to mention a line like the “quote” attributed to Larry Schiller, the real-life producer/director of NBC’s 1982, The Executioner’s Song: “He would also tell the truth and not protect himself.”  Thank you for the assurances, Mailer) while also reinforcing the emotional ties readers might have towards the story. 

And so, because of New Journalism (or even in spite of it) I have come to have a fairly strong (positive) opinion about the “New Journalistic” winner of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  I mean, just the effort that went into creating the book is impressive: 15,000 pages of interviews, 15 months of full-on writing, with a nearly thousand page book garnering a major award.  (And that major award wasn’t even the author, Norman Mailer’s, first.  He had won the General Non-Fiction Pulitzer Prize for Armies of the Night in 1969.)  And it doesn’t stop there.  Mailer also managed to mostly convince me of something in his novel, the beauty of the thing being that I’m not even sure he was trying to.  I’m even going to use a bit of hyperbole and insist that Mailer intuitively understood the importance of the story of Gary and Nicole and how it really needed to be told without any political agenda, and so that’s what he did.  But maybe that’s just the devious elements of New Journalism talking, and, of course, that doubt I’m having is part of the furor surrounding New Journalism.  How can such a “subjective” form of “journalism” in which the author seeks “truth” more than “facts” (that debate is from yet another film somehow connected in my mind to Mailer’s novel, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) lack a political agenda, a personal bias?  I don’t know, but I do feel it’s not impossible to get close, (see my post about Cozzens’ Guard of Honor for more on this) and at the end of the day, I’m not sure it really matters for Mailer’s novel anyway.  As a novel, (and I feel I can speak fairly authoritatively on this because I read the book cold, not knowing it as anything other than a “novel”) Mailer’s story was crafted in such a fashion as to truly show and not tell.  His “Song” is never preachy, never self-righteous, though it might verge on being “twee” with its meta-fictional qualities which could drive some readers away.  (Though if you’re going to be breaking a fourth wall, makes a lot of sense to do it in a book about a guy in prison, right?)  But none of this is why I have reservations about the book and won’t be reading it ever again (at least any time soon).  It may be brilliant and memorable like Airplane! (just an opinion, folks, not a fact), it may even come to us in a form that engages with philosophical ideas about Truth, but unlike Airplane! and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade it’s just too darn long.  I mean, unless you’re like my friend Beachey and have trouble respecting books of a reasonable length, who has the time to read this shelf-groaner once let alone twice.  Take my word for it, just take Airplane! out for a spin.

Craig B author Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) He lives with his charming wife in the small town of Berne, IN (in sight of the clock tower) where he busies himself keeping the Roses of Sharon in check and training his chinchilla in the ancient arts of the Ninja. Craig’s current favorite book is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.

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