Once upon a time, our culture treated famous writers like rock stars, and for decades, none rocked harder than Norman Mailer. He rocked political conventions, TV shows, and heavyweight championship fights. As Ross Wetzsteon, my first editor at the Village Voice (which Mailer helped found), put it, “There’s times when I wanted to throttle him, but he always puts himself on the line.”
Mailer never put more on the line than he did in 1980, when he lobbied for the release of a convict named Jack Abbott, who helped him write perhaps his most celebrated book, The Executioner’s Song. After being championed by Mailer and other writers, Abbott was granted parole in 1981 and — as everyone who read a newspaper or watched 60 Minutes knew — six weeks later fatally stabbed Richard Adan, a waiter and aspiring actor, in a dispute over using the restaurant’s employees-only bathroom.
Writing with concision and clarity, Jerome Loving calls Jack and Norman “the story of a writer who set out all his life to write the Great American Novel and stumbled into its greatness as essentially a gifted journalist whose ‘true life novel’ transcends the quotidian world of facts…. It is the story of incarceration in America.”
Born in 1944 in Michigan and raised in Utah, Abbott was the son of an Irish father and a Chinese mother, the latter a sex worker who put up four of her children for adoption. “Both sides of Jack’s family,” writes Loving, “refused to recognize either him or his older half-sister, Frances, because of their mixed race.” Abbott was ashamed of his mother’s ethnicity and never mentioned it.
He went from one foster home to another and was finally sent to a reform school for boys, the Utah State Industrial School, when he was eleven or twelve. The school’s “reform” methods included solitary confinement. At eighteen, he was free for three months before being convicted of passing bad checks. He wouldn’t be out again very often. “Of his last twenty years of incarceration,” Loving writes, “he had been ‘free’ only seven months.” Abbott was, in his own phrase, “a state-raised” convict.
He began adult imprisonment in 1963 at the Utah State Prison in Draper (where Gary Gilmore, Mailer’s subject in The Executioner’s Song, was executed). A stint in federal prison followed, in 1971, which appears to have been five to six years before he first wrote to Mailer.
A voracious reader, Abbott learned to write in prison; he contacted Mailer after reading in a newspaper that America’s most renowned literary journalist was working on a book on Gilmore, the convicted murderer who became famous for demanding that his death sentence be carried out. Abbott had crossed paths with Gilmore in prison, and they had much in common, including a background in Mormonism and a life of crime.
We don’t know exactly when he first wrote Mailer — the earliest correspondence in Abbott’s book, In the Belly of the Beast, comes after they had been in touch for a couple of years. From their first letters, Abbott includes mentions of Mailer’s writing, but all are references to Mailer’s journalism and essays, such as “The White Negro”; he doesn’t appear to have read any of the novels, like The Naked and the Dead or Barbary Shore, or at least not at that time.
“I can tell you stories,” Abbott wrote in a letter to Mailer. “I’d like to.”
Mailer was “drawn into Abbott’s world,” Loving writes. “It was a journey deep into the dungeons of the nation’s incarcerated, an exploration Mailer needed for his book. Yet he was also smitten by Abbott’s prose style.” Abbott’s letters to Mailer became the basis “of one of the most powerful prison narratives in American literature, a modern-day tour of Dante’s inferno called In the Belly of the Beast.” Abbott “had a mind like no other [Mailer] had ever encountered.”
When Abbott’s parole came up for review, other members of the New York literati joined Mailer in his defense. “What the fuck the East-Coast WASP mob of the New York Review of Books sees in me is fascinating,” he wrote Mailer in 1980.
At thirty-six — the same age as Gilmore when he was executed — Abbott was out of prison for only the second time in his adult life and, also like Gilmore, was entirely unprepared for freedom. He was baffled by the most mundane tasks of everyday life on the outside: “It has never occurred to me in my remembered life that I had to decide what I was going to eat for dinner. I don’t know how to think on those terms….I can’t imagine myself shopping for anything.”
In retrospect, Abbott seems to have had virtually no chance of succeeding. According to Loving, Abbott “was not placed in one of the better halfway houses in [New York City], where he might have gradually adapted to ‘civilian life’…he was released from solitary to the city in one of its worst, crime-ridden neighborhoods.” The quarrel with and killing of Adan, on July 18, 1981, just weeks after Abbott’s release, had a horrifying aura of inevitability. The very next day, as yet unaware of the attack, the New York Times ran a review of In the Belly of the Beast, calling the author “a master of the vignette and the brief meditation” but ominously noting that “his genius as a writer does depend upon anger and rage.” Abbott fled New York and was captured two months later in Louisiana; sentenced to fifteen years to life for manslaughter, he eventually committed suicide in prison in 2002.
Loving, a professor of English at Texas A&M, tells the story with a refreshing economy of language, never succumbing, as so many who have written about Mailer have done, to the temptation to try to imitate his prose. (He never once uses “existential,” a word that, as Gore Vidal quipped, Mailer used “like a truck driver uses ketchup.”)
At a press conference after Adan’s death, a reporter asked Mailer, “What would you say to the father of this young man, who says his blood is on your hands?” Mailer paused, looked at the journalist, and said, “I’d say he’s right.”
Jack and Norman shows Mailer at his best, with the courage to take potentially terrible risks, and worst, naïve to the point of being oblivious to reality. Against all logic, Mailer defended Abbott after the killing of Adan, but, Loving concludes, he was only being true to his long-held belief that “a democracy involves taking risks.”
In life and in literature, no American writer took risks like Norman Mailer, and in failure none was more honest in owning up to them. He may not have written the Great American Novel, but he came close to living it.
Jack and Norman: A State-Raised Convict and the Legacy of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song
By Jerome Loving
Thomas Dunne Books