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Summer reading: Carolyn Kellogg on Norman Mailer

September 5, 2010 | 12:00 pm

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Although the phrase "beach reads" evokes fluffy page turners, we had conversations around the office this spring that led us to think that people might have used the summer break-from-routine to sink into books that were meaningful, or lasting. What better way to find out than to ask?

In the responses we got from authors and booksellers, we discovered that people's favorite summer reads were as broad as at any other time of year, not proscribed by anything but their enthusiasms. To close out our summer reads, here's mine -- I'm Carolyn Kellogg, and I write about books and publishing here at the L.A. Times -- it's a doorstopper.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book during the summer?

Carolyn Kellogg: Yes, most notably, "The Executioner's Song" by Norman Mailer.

JC: How old were you, and where were you?

CK: I was 16 or 17, at my parents' house in Wakefield, R.I., where I didn't spend as much time as you might expect. I'd gone away for high school and worked part of the summers as a nanny, so my intervals at home were short. Not that they felt that way -- it was a small town, and because I'd picked up and left of my own accord, my adolescent friendships had shriveled. I didn't have a car. Being at my parents' house was like being sent into isolation.

The house was at the town's furthest reaches, on the wrong side of a hard-to-traverse highway. Our property was one of several large-ish lots along a dirt road, all of which were slowly being settled. We had about 5 acres, full of scrubby underbrush and thick briars only the rabbits could get through. The house was designed by an architect friend of my dad's and had a small suburban yard out front -- planting beds, a patio, green turf grass. It was there, on a beach blanket, slathered with baby oil in a fruitless and unhealthy effort to get a tan, that I read "The Executioner's Song."

JC: Why was the book significant to you then?

CK: First, because it was so big -- more than 1,000 pages. I knew that it would last me for a good stretch of my time at home. This was way before the Internet, and I'd read everything in the house -- including my parents' college books, significant portions of a horticultural encyclopedia and my dad's Chronicles of Higher Education and Scientific Americans when they arrived.

Second, because it was great. It was great in scope, it was great in its difficult moral reckonings, it was great in its ambitions to portray Gary Gilmore's life up close, closer than any straightforward journalist could have. It was a great read. It was powerful and moving yet almost entirely free of sentimentality.

If you haven't read it, "The Executioner's Song" is Norman Mailer's detailed telling of the story of Gary Gilmore, a high school dropout with a high IQ who became a small-time hood, was in and out of prison and eventually committed murder, twice, messily. When he was caught and tried, he was sentenced to death; Gilmore refused to appeal, meaning he'd be the first American executed by the justice system after a five-year suspension of capital punishment. The book looks as closely at Gilmore's troubled early life as it does at those fighting for and against the death penalty, who saw Gilmore as a symbol; Mailer's take was that he was a man trying to face the consequences of his actions. Gary Gilmore was killed by firing squad in Utah in 1977; for "The Executioner's Song," Norman Mailer won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize.

Mailer won his Pulitzer for fiction -- "The Executioner's Song" was considered a novel, then, although today its heavy reliance on firsthand interviews and courthouse reporting would likely categorize it as nonfiction. There was some uncertainty where to put the true but vividly embroidered New Journalism -- which I'd already encountered, surprisingly, at my staid, two-centuries-old boarding school. On the sly, between Shakespeares, my English class had read Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," thrilling in its subjectivity and self-indulgence and madcap storytelling. "The Executioner's Song" had some of that -- including the strong voice and presence of the narrator, Mailer -- but it aspired to something more. Now I can see that Norman Mailer was doing his own version of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," finding his own killer and trying to get inside his mind, and he was wrestling with his big testosterone-y questions. What does it take to be a man? What unmakes him? Is society at war with manhood?

Although smarter women than I have balked at these particularly manly, Mailerly obsessions, "The Executioner's Song" and his presence within the narrative are still, to me, magnificent and full of possibility.

JC: Have you re-read the book?

CK: No, but I've read a lot of other Norman Mailer, including the 1,300-page "Harlot's Ghost." I'd trade that for a re-reading of "The Executioner's Song."

JC: Have you returned to that place?

CK: The fall after I turned 18, my parents dug up most of that green yard and the one grand tree on our property, a dogwood, to put in a pool. The place where I read was gone once, then erased a second time by the family my parents sold the house to a few years ago; they razed everything and built their own new home there, with their own suburban yard.

JC: Do you have plans to read any specific book before the summer is over?

CK: I'm reading James Ellroy's "The Hilliker Curse," because I'm interviewing him on stage at Largo on Tuesday. And I also will go back to John Waters' "Role Models," because I'm interviewing him on stage in Brooklyn on Friday. And I have a long, long row of books to read for the National Book Critics Circle that will carry me well into fall.

If you need something to read this weekend, we've still got a list of fresh reads from summer 2010: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Norman Mailer at home in 2006. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

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