Village Voice 05.10.2017 : Page 34

36 May 10 -May 16, 2017 The Novelist and the Murderer A new book explores the fatal friendship between Norman Mailer and Jack Abbott O BY ALLEN BARRA 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 con-victed 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 back-ground in Mormonism and a life of crime. We don’t know exactly when he first wrote Mailer — the earliest correspon-dence 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 Norman Mailer announcing his libel suit against the New York Post for its reporting on his relationship with Jack Abbott, January 22, 1982 nce upon a time, our culture treated famous writers like rock stars, and for decades, none rocked harder than Nor-man Mailer. He rocked political conven-tions, 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 news-paper 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 chil-dren for adoption. “Both sides of Jack’s family,” writes Loving, “refused to recog-nize 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 con-victed 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 Ex-ecutioner’s Song , was executed). A stint in day, as yet unaware of the attack, the New a letter to Mailer. “I’d like to.” York Times ran a review of In the Belly of the Mailer was “drawn into Abbott’s Beast , calling the author “a master of the world,” Loving writes. “It was a journey vignette and the brief meditation” but omi-deep into the dungeons of the nation’s in-nously noting that “his genius as a writer carcerated, an exploration Mailer needed does depend upon anger and rage.” Abbott for his book. Yet he was also smitten by fled New York and was captured two Abbott’s prose style.” Abbott’s letters to months later in Louisiana; sentenced to fif-Mailer became the basis “of one of the most powerful prison narratives in Amer-teen years to life for manslaughter, he even-tually committed suicide in prison in 2002. ican literature, a modern-day tour of Loving, a professor of English at Texas Dante’s inferno called In the Belly of the A&M, tells the story with a refreshing Beast .” Abbott “had a mind like no other economy of language, never succumb-[Mailer] had ever encountered.” ing, as so many who have written about When Abbott’s parole came up for re-Mailer have done, to the temptation to try view, other members of the New York li-to imitate his prose. (He never once uses terati joined Mailer in his defense. “What “existential,” a word that, as Gore Vidal the fuck the East-Coast WASP mob of quipped, Mailer used “like a truck driver the New York Review of Books sees in me is uses ketchup.”) fascinating,” he wrote Mailer in 1980. At a press conference after Adan’s At thirty-six — the same age as Gilmore death, a reporter asked Mailer, “What when he was executed — Abbott was out would you say to the father of this young of prison for only the second time in his man, who says his adult life and, also like Gilm-blood is on your ore, was entirely unprepared Jack and Norman: hands?” Mailer for freedom. He was baffled A State-Raised paused, looked at the by the most mundane tasks Convict and the journalist, and said, of everyday life on the out-Legacy of Norman Mailer’s The “I’d say he’s right.” side: “It has never occurred Executioner’s Song Jack and Norman to me in my remembered life By Jerome Loving shows Mailer at his that I had to decide what I was Thomas Dunne Books best, with the courage going to eat for dinner. I don’t 256 pp. to take potentially ter-know how to think on those $25.99 rible risks, and worst, terms....I can’t imagine myself naïve to the point of shopping for anything.” being oblivious to reality. Against all logic, In retrospect, Abbott seems to have had Mailer defended Abbott after the killing of virtually no chance of succeeding. Accord-Adan, but, Loving concludes, he was only ing to Loving, Abbott “was not placed in being true to his long-held belief that “a one of the better halfway houses in [New democracy involves taking risks.” York City], where he might have gradually In life and in literature, no American adapted to ‘civilian life’...he was released writer took risks like Norman Mailer, and from solitary to the city in one of its worst, in failure none was more honest in own-crime-ridden neighborhoods.” The quarrel ing up to them. He may not have written with and killing of Adan, on July 18, 1981, the Great American Novel, but he came just weeks after Abbott’s release, had a hor-close to living it. rifying aura of inevitability. The very next VILLAGE Bettmann/Contributor

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