05/22/2012 11:35 am ET Updated May 23, 2012

Dave Eggers Wants You To Read Norman Mailer's 'Executioner's Song'

The following is an excerpt from a new edition of Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" [Grand Central Publishing, $18.99].

Foreword to Executioner’s Song
by Dave Eggers

Part One
In the event that you’ve just picked up this book, and know little or nothing about it, and are unsure whether you should read it, I want to urge you with all my being that you must read The Executioner’s Song. I want to further guarantee that you will finish it. It’s the fastest 1,000 pages you will ever know.

It’s necessary to say, up front, that whatever you might know or think about Norman Mailer, or whatever you might assume about the man, his work, his personality or his sociopolitical views, none of that information (or misinformation) applies here. This is a story that bears no markings of what we presume to be Mailer’s prose style or point of view. The Executioner’s
Song is completely something other. Mailer once said that the book was given to him, whole and complete, from God, and it’s difficult to argue with that. The Executioner’s Song cannot be improved. Mailer did not write a better book, and I’m not sure anyone of his generation wrote a better book.

I urge you to read this book without knowing anything more about the story it tells. By now, in 2012, the vast majority of readers new to The Executioner’s Song will have little to no knowledge about Gary Mark Gilmore, the book’s central figure, where he came from, what he did. That is to be expected, and perhaps even embraced for our purposes here. Reading his
story without knowing the outcome will only enhance the experience—it gives the book unimaginable tension and scope—and so I urge you to read nothing more of this introduction, which will discuss some of the issues the book raises and will reveal too much. Come back to these pages only after you’ve read the book, if you come back to them all.

Part II

It’s important to know where Norman Mailer was in his career when he wrote this book. Since his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, he had published books—including Armies of the Night and The Deer Park and An American Dream—to great acclaim, and some to great opprobrium. He was considered one of the most powerful stylists of his generation, his sentences muscular, hyper-intelligent, always unmistakably his.

One can imagine the shock, then, of reading even the first few sentences of The Executioner’s Song: “Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared.” There and throughout the book the prose is flat, unvarnished, plainspoken.
The words on the page sound like the people the book depicts— shoemakers, mechanics, motel managers of Provo, Utah. Mailer has sublimated his own style, and his own ideas, to the story, and a fair argument could be made that this sublimation, rather than the mad stylistic tapdancing of, say, The Naked and the Dead, is the greater feat. Nowhere do we hear Norman Mailer’s thoughts about Gary Gilmore, or Nicole Barrett, or capital punishment, or the West. Surely his point of view comes through, obliquely, by what he chooses to include in the book, and what he doesn’t.

But we’re left with the story, unimpeded, uncommented-upon, and the story, here, is plenty, the details so exacting, so revealing, that every section of the book—it’s told in small, isolated chunks, like ice floes detached and self-sufficient—is its own small, perfect, and revelatory prose-poem.

Copyright © 1979 by Norman Mailer, Lawrence Schiller, and The New Ingot Company, Inc. Foreword Copyright © 2012 by Dave Eggers. Published by Grand Central Publishing, 2012.