On Norman Mailer, Jack Henry Abbott, and the Legacy of Going Too Deep Into the Belly of the Beast

How Norman Mailer, while preparing 1979's The Executioner's Song, collaborated with Jack Henry Abbott and opened doors that should have remained shut.

“When Mailer took up the task of writing Gilmore’s story, he too entered a… virtual prison…”

The phenomenon of radical chic had roots deeper than Tom Wolfe’s 1970 release Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (Picador. 1970). In that book of two essays, Wolfe painted a devastating picture involving Black Panthers, Latino gangsters, and striking grape pickers intermingling with the Liberal elite establishment. Wolfe’s account was suitably cynical and dark, especially in scenes where the Black Panthers and the cream of New York society met for a fundraising party at flamboyant classical music conductor Leonard Bernstein’s Park Avenue Duplex Apartment. Was it about eliminating white guilt, funding Utopian idealism, or a mixture of both?

Go back to 1921, though, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay can be seen picketing in favor of accused anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Even deeper in the past, in the midst of the American Civil War, Henry David Thoreau spoke out in defense of radical abolitionist John Brown. The connection between radicals and misfits (rightly or unjustifiably accused) and the literati has a long and storied history.

In Jerome Loving’s new, Jack and Norman: a State-Raised Convict and the Legacy of Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song”, the after-effects of radical chic can be felt everywhere. Look into Mailer’s tired eyes in any footage of his 1981 press conference fighting against the New York Post headline: “Norman Mailer shocker: ‘I’d help killer again.’” Jack Henry Abbott, a career criminal, was searching either for a mentor or an excuse by the late ’70s. Like many convicts with nothing but time, he gravitated to writers, and his first focus was Being There author Jerzy Kosinski, then President of the American PEN, whose organization was at the time focusing on writing and literacy programs in prison.

Spurned by Kosinski, Abbott then gravitated towards Mailer who, by the late ’70s, was apparently financially strapped and responsible for a large family and multiple alimony payments. Mailer needed an insider voice to help provide veracity to research about convicted killer Gary Gilmore. From this epistolary relationship Mailer produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1979 novel The Executioner’s Song, Abbott published In The Belly of The Beast (1981), and on the eve of a rave review from The New York Times, he murdered Richard Adan, a 22-year-old New York City actor/waiter.

It’s within this fairly basic and oft-told story that Loving manages to juggle quite a few narratives. This is about Mailer, who was 25 when his 1948 book, The Naked and the Dead, announced him as an undeniably brilliant and brutal literary lion. It was and remains one of the greatest World War II novels, an explosion of blood and passion equal parts John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and all parts Mailer. Throughout the next 30 years, Mailer was an award-winning and controversial fixture in many cultural moments. Loving argues that by the late ’70s, though, Mailer’s career echoed that of another American literary master:

His career pattern bore an uncanny resemblance to… Theodore Dreiser… who first became famous with Sister Carrie in 1900 and… American Tragedy in 1925. Mailer would begin and essentially end his career with literary masterpieces… if Dreiser is… ‘the father of American Realism,’ Mailer became his literary son with his pair of deterministic novels.

Mailer would publish six more novels after 1979’s The Executioner’s Song, various essay collections, and several big non-fiction books (including 1995’s Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery), but The Executioner’s Song was truly the last major gasp for this uncompromising writer, who would die in 2007. Loving’s book gives the impression that this connection with Abbott remained a burden for Mailer. Abbott, who died in 2002, would continue to write Mailer, but the latter seemed to have difficulty letting go of this subject. He seemed to think still had some sense of redemption: “…I feel a little like a burnt-out case. I hardly know what to say to you anymore…Your letters are obviously showing huge pain and confusion and all kinds of hassles.”

If there’s a sympathetic hero in Jack and Norman, Loving is more kind to Mailer than others might be. Mailer’s vicious 1960 stabbing of his 2nd wife Adele happened during one of the many low ebbs the novelist and pugnacious pugilist writing superstar would experience, and it remains difficult to understand how it was washed away. Adele, an artist in her own right, refused to press charges as a way to protect their children. Was Mailer attracted to characters like Abbott and Gilmore because of a “there but for the Grace of God” feeling? Loving makes clear that while Mailer fancied himself street smart and cunning, in the manner of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, he was also a Harvard graduate and well acquainted with high society. Perhaps that was also a conflict and part of what drew him towards drifters and miscreants like Jack Henry Abbott and Gary Gilmore.

Loving is working under some imposing constraints here, and he effectively manages to tell his story without any excess diversions. After all, Mailer had produced the masterful The Executioner’s Song not as an objective journalistic account of a man gone bad; Mailer believed Gilmore was sent to Hell because of spiritual poverty. The novel, split into two parts (“Western Voices” and “Eastern Voices”) is about all sorts of poverty and all sorts of exploitation. Gilmore insists on his right to be put to death, and all manner of people converge to claim their piece of the pie.

Loving effectively analyzes the structure of the book as a literary piece in the tradition of Dreiser and Dos Passos, Mailer’s heroes, and he leaves the condemnation to other people. Loving also had to contend with Mikal Gilmore’s 1995 memoir, Shot In the Heart, a book less about his big brother (whom he only really knew through the context of prison) than the bigger picture of ghosts running through a broken family, Utah Mormon culture, and other scars that never heal.

As is, Jack and Norman is about truth, consequence, and legacy. Loving also does an impressive, thorough job examining the roots of the American penal system. He traces it back to the Quakers in Pennsylvania, who opened the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829. “Back then, the goal of punishment, or penance, took a back seat to the goal of penitence.” Loving argues that the idea of redemption as the goal of rehabilitating social outcasts was at the root of the system and was still happening 150 years later. “Prisoners in the nineteenth century were effectively removed from the world in which they had sinned,” Loving notes. “…Even their names were taken away.”

Loving focuses on Alexis DeToqueville and Charles Dickens, two legendary Europeans who observed how the colonies were dealing with their outcasts. Their observations about the problems with solitary confinement remain relevant today. Dickens, in particular, was no fan of the Iron gag punishment technique: “He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years… dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.”

With Jack and Norman, Loving has released an interesting, compelling, and ultimately tragic compendium to the story of Gilmore, Abbott, and Mailer. It’s about the American penal system and the likelihood that “When Mailer took up the task of writing Gilmore’s story, he too entered a… virtual prison… whose sordid surroundings… reflected the failure of prisons to reform what society had already sealed off from itself.” The crashing consequences of Mailer’s hubris (or naiveté) in thinking he could possibly rehabilitate Abbott was probably the justifiable price the once fierce literary lion had to pay for entering the world of clever sociopaths with all the time in the world to paint brutal world pictures about life on the inside.

Abbott and Gilmore were children of the ’50s who quickly became wards of the state. Whether they ever had complete control or agency over their actions is an argument for social criminologists with their own particular agendas to espouse

As for Mailer, ostensibly the primary force in this story, he was an observer, a fighter, a ward of Harvard (and all that implied) with a predilection for those looking in from the outside. He was a passionate and sometimes woefully misguided chronicler of flawed, bitter, angry men (young and old.) Mailer may have lived another quarter century after Jack Henry Abbott — the criminal he’d help get released and who subsequently killed a man six weeks later — but the legacy of his gullibility seemed to leave a mark.

Loving wisely opens Jack and Norman with an epigraph in which Mailer clearly notes that he understands that The Executioner’s Song will be interpreted as “swinish”, a glorification of a two-time killer. There’s something undeniably admirable about a writer who understands from the start that he will be hated for writing a book. In Jack and Norman, Loving has written a rich, absorbing, empathetic story. He justifiably leaves us with the impression that the only true and unredeemable villain in the story of Jack Henry Abbott and Norman Mailer is the American penal system. How, or if, that system transforms from what it was to what it could be is a story for another day.