Of course I would go on to read The Fight – and it really is a work of genius, one of the finest sports books ever. And, also, it’s kinda not really/not only a sports book – by which I mean if you don’t usually care for sports journalism this is a kind of cultural criticism almost, and it’s a capturing of history as it happened, and it’s written in that way of the New Journalism where it’s almost a Non-Fiction Novel.
And when it became hard to defend Mailer – and it’s not about defending him, I’m sure he was a shit of a human being (his ex-wives, plural, would not be wrong) – he was at least (sometimes) a hell of a writer. And The Fight was good proof of that.
I’ve read a bit more Mailer, and liked a lot of it – but I’ve no doubt he overwrites, I’ve no doubt that some of the books are awful.
But I can say, hand on heart, that one of the greatest books I’ve ever read was The Executioner’s Song. It’s one of the biggest too…
And I feel much the same way about really big books as I do epic movies. The truly amazing ones are worth it, but more often than not I’d rather watch/read two shorter movies/books than bother with the huge running time/reading time. Maybe I’ve missed out on a bunch of great experiences – but so be it. At least I can say, with The Executioner’s Song, as with Stephen King’s It and The Stand that it was not only worth it, it was an experience that will stay with me forever.
And it was a cool way to finally get to the book too. I had borrowed it off a friend years earlier. Always intending to read it, but the 1100 page doorstop was rather intimidating when it came time to crack the spine.
And then my pal Jonny Potts started this crazy-idea podcast called My Year of Reading Massively – he’d read an 800+ page book every month and discuss with a guest. Different book each month, different guests. He gave me The Executioner’s Song, and though I could have had a run up I decided to wait until the month of the podcast. (I believe that was the idea).
And then I left it until the week of the podcast. I gave myself seven days to read the 1100 pages.
And it was a thrill. A rush. An exhilarating ride. I remember reading 400 pages one day.
This thing is gripping!
It tells the story of the life and death of Gary Gilmore; the first public execution when the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, following a decade’s reprieve. The book was written two years later (1979) and it’s an absolute beast.
I described it once as world’s longest, greatest feature article.
The tone of the piece is curious and brilliant. The storytelling profound.
It was a beautiful assignment. I’d sit in the couch by the window – moving to make cups of break, having a break every hour or so. Doing my best over five or six days to glutton down a couple of hundred pages at a time. And I really don’t think I’ve had a better time as a reader.
Only King’s It would come close. But that’s a story for another time perhaps – and it was the start of my “serious” reading, the very first ‘big’ book I tackled.
Executioner’s Song is funny and wise and moving, it is heartbreaking and cruel and blunt and it has the most memerising journalistic voice to it. Removed, detached but utterly present, always believable.
I remember finishing the book with a day to spare before recording the episode of the podcast.
I watched the TV movie – which isn’t great, but is also not terrible – to celebrate. I guess I knew it’d be a useful podcast talking point.
Jonny’s project was cool – and I can’t believe he did it. Reading Joyce and David Foster Wallace and all manner of long and challenging books. But I’m so glad he dreamed it up. And invited me along to chat about what has forever since been one of my all time favourite books; one of the most pleasant reading experiences – and totally one of the books that has blown my mind.
Books That Blew My Mind is an occasional series here at Off The Tracks – thinking back on great books that I loved (and still love); books that found me at just the right time.