Goodbye, self-advertising, two-fisted clown-drunk Mailer. Hello, relentlessly objective Invisible Norman. Indeed, the tone, the voice, the man himself seem at first entirely gone, until we notice how vividly the figure of Gilmore dominates every page as he manipulates the world from his jail cell; it's as if Mailer, always his own existential hero, has found one with even stronger credentials. Before his death at 36, Gilmore had spent all but four years of his adolescent/adult life in jail. Here, we follow him from his release on parole from the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, in April 1976 to his execution at Utah State Prison in January 1977, a nine-month period in which Gilmore spent only four months flee. He was paroled when his cousin Brenda guaranteed him a home and a job. Self-educated, Gilmore had a nice vocabulary, a definite drawing talent, and a knack for writing; he exercised regularly and was generally fearless. But he'd been an emotional child, we learn from flashbacks, boorishly insensitive to the effect of his instant explosions on others. And now, in his newfound parole freedom, his volatility became a weapon that terrorized others and let him get his own way. He also brought his prison values with him; to cheat, to steal, or to rape were as inconsequential and natural as breathing. But within a few weeks he'd moved in with Nicole Baker, a much-married 19-year-old mother of two, a sexy, sensitive girl-woman (Gary's "elf") who fell for him in the hardest possible way. He beat her; she moved out and hid in a nearby town. And after her desertion, he was wired for disaster; he murdered a gas-station attendant and a motel clerk, was recognized and arrested. A rapid trial and sentencing found him on Death Row. He chose death by firing squad and refused to allow an appeal; he deserved to die, he felt, and he detested the prospect of a life sentence—he'd already spent over 18 years in prison. So began the massive efforts of others to save him against his will. Utah's entire judicial system was called into question. And, more important, no one had been executed in the U.S. for ten years. Would his be the breakthrough case re-establishing capital punishment and condemning Death Row prisoners everywhere? Gilmore, meanwhile, had sold the rights to his life story to Larry Schiller, a journalist-filmmaker (who put together Mailer's Marilyn bio-package), and, in Mailer's dramatization, he becomes the third principal—a hustler who undergoes a profound moral education in the course of the Gilmore countdown.
These three are magnificently drawn and placed against the array of persons who've been stabbed in one way or another by Gilmore's tragic double nature—and, working chiefly with Schiller's tapes, Mailer has pulled off a crafty portrait, a shrewd reconstruction, a compelling projection of his own nature through that of a truly doomed man.