In 1979, Norman Mailer published The Executioner’s Song, a novel that narrated the life and death of Gary Gilmore, a notorious killer executed in 1977. Loving (English/Texas A&M Univ.; Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War, 2013, etc.) offers the back story of Mailer’s fraught relationship with the murderer whose story was eerily similar to that of Gilmore.
At the end of his mighty book, Mailer acknowledged the “exceptional letters” from Jack Henry Abbott “that delineate the code, the morals, the anguish, the philosophy, the pitfalls, the pride, and the search for inviolability of hard-line convicts.” Abbott, who said he knew Gilmore, was also a coldblooded murderer imprisoned since adolescence, reared by a punishing government. Both prisoners raged against regulation, controlling “pigs,” fellow cons, and sniveling do-gooders. Gilmore had some artistic talent, and Abbott had uncanny literary skill, founded on sophisticated reading, including Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Rimbaud, and Marx. Abbott surely sensed an ally in Mailer, who had famously stabbed his own wife. The convict’s letters cemented a relationship with the celebrated author, and Mailer was an important voice in gaining Abbott’s parole. Eventually, Abbott released his musings in the form of In the Belly of the Beast (1981), which became a bestseller. The morning before a positive review appeared in the New York Times, he stabbed to death a blameless waiter. He was soon captured and found guilty of manslaughter. His defense was “prison paranoia”—i.e., he was trained by the state to kill. Mailer pleaded for a brief sentence because of the killer’s writerly talent, but Abbott died in prison, perhaps by his own hand. In his forthright, if sporadic report, which could have used a chronology, Loving relies on research and the available correspondence between the famed writer and the clever convict, and he reveals the odd nexus of literature and penology, the meeting of art and criminality.
A sympathetic telling of the life and death of an infamous convict and the ill-fated intervention of a famed writer.