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Early on the morning of Saturday, July 18, 1981, sometime between 5:00 and 6:00 A.M., two men would quarrel in a restaurant. Apparently, the dispute was over the use of the bathroom at the former Binibon Café, an all-night joint on the corner of East Fifth Street and Second Avenue in the then seedy East Village of Manhattan. Both individuals were artists. Richard Adan, managing his father-in-law’s restaurant, was an émigré of Cuba and an aspiring playwright. Jack Henry Abbott, who had been recently released from prison after twenty years, hoped to immigrate to Cuba and was the author of the newly published In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison. Adan had yet to make his mark as an artist but was on his way. Abbott, who had taught himself to write in prison, had just produced a bestseller. The New York Times Book Review for the next day printed an ecstatic appraisal, which New Yorkers would wake up to read before they heard the very latest news about the author.
The men quickly moved their argument outside, where Adan tried to calm the waters by showing Abbott a place behind a Dumpster where he could relieve himself. While doing so, Abbott worried that Adan was going to attack him or have him arrested for disorderly or threatening conduct since, inside, he had raised his voice when Adan refused to let him use the employee bathroom. He also worried about what the two young ladies sitting at one of the tables inside were thinking. One was a student at Barnard and a native of the Philippines and the other a resident of France, who had accompanied him to the café after a night of dancing. Later, Abbott claimed Adan had a knife. Abbott definitely had a knife. Emerging from behind the Dumpster, he again confronted Adan, his anger at being refused use of the facilities in front of his female guests still smoldering. This time, the soft-spoken night manager tried to diffuse the situation by turning his back on Abbott while inviting him to return to the restaurant. Suddenly, Abbott pulled out a four-inch blade, grabbed his victim from behind, and plunged the knife into his chest, nearly slicing Adan’s heart in half. Abbott ran back into the restaurant and announced that he had just killed a man and had to flee. The young women fled, too, but they didn’t leave the area; instead, they stood a block away looking back at the scene of the attack until somebody identified them to police as appearing to have knowledge about the crime and they were brought back for questioning. Adan lay dead on the littered pavement. Abbott would soon be on his way to Mexico.
* * *
Thus began and ended the brief and fleeting literary career of Jack Henry Abbott, even though he would write another book a few years later. That morning also changed forever the way Norman Mailer would view the artist or the writer as outlier, an idea he had asserted in the controversial essay “The White Negro” in 1959. Literary talent might not, should not, trump personal conduct—the man who had once stabbed his wife, nearly killing her, would conclude. Mailer had been one of the principal agents of Jack’s release from prison. He had promised to employ the ex-con as a literary assistant, and he had written an introduction to In the Belly of the Beast. The book consisted of prison letters Abbott had written to Mailer while he worked away on The Executioner’s Song, his magnum opus and the work that would win him his second Pulitzer Prize, in 1980. Without those letters from Abbott, who told him what it was truly like to grow up behind bars, as Gary Gilmore, the focus of The Executioner’s Song, had essentially done, Mailer said he could not have written the book he did. “Your letters,” he told Abbott as he was finishing his work, “have lit up corners of the book for me that I might otherwise not have comprehended or seen only in the gloom of my instinct unfortified by experience. Often the things you say corroborate my deepest instincts about what prison must be like.”1 Although he had spent brief time in city jails and seventeen days in Bellevue Hospital following the stabbing of his second wife in 1960, Mailer had never been in prison. Abbott and Gary Gilmore were incarcerated in the same prison at the same time—two, in fact: the Utah State Prison in Draper and the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.
“When you got down to it,” Mailer wrote in the introduction to Jack’s book, “I did not know much about violence in prison.” He read carefully Abbott’s letters describing it, which Mailer wrote, “did not encourage sweet dreams.” Unlike Gilmore’s description of prison in his letters to his girlfriend, Abbott’s were not romantic. Abbott “was not interested in the particular,” as Gilmore was, but only in the relevance of those particulars “to the abstract. Prison, whatever its nightmares, was not a dream whose roots would lead you to eternity, but an infernal machine of destruction, a design for the Dispose-All anus of a prodigiously diseased society.”2
* * *
This is the story of the author and the apprentice. It is the story of literary influence and tragedy. It is the story of a state-raised convict, the “by-blow,” as Melville says of another of society’s orphans in Billy Budd, a novel that comes into play in our story; of an army drunk; and a Eurasian prostitute. It is 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. Finally, it is the story of incarceration in America.
Gilmore in the Flesh
Norman Mailer was less than halfway through a first draft of The Executioner’s Song, a book of just over a thousand pages, when he heard from Federal Prisoner 87098-132. “Violence in America: A Novel in the Life of Gary Gilmore” was then the working title for what would arguably become Mailer’s magnum opus. As in the case of his book on Marilyn Monroe in 1973, the author got the basis of his story from Lawrence Schiller, a photographer for Life magazine and a media entrepreneur. Schiller had purchased the rights to the Gilmore story. The convicted double murderer was executed by a Utah firing squad on January 17, 1977. It was the first use of capital punishment in the United States since 1973, when the Supreme Court had ruled the death penalty as it was then practiced cruel and unusual punishment, in part because of a lack of uniform criteria. The states, especially Texas, where Gilmore was born, quickly rectified the problem, and the high court approved the changes in 1976. Yet even Texas, which has easily led the field in executions since their resumption, took another six years to execute somebody. No one state, certainly not Utah, apparently wished to be the first to resume the death penalty in America. When Gilmore insisted that his sentence be carried out on schedule, bypassing the normal appeal process, he became a household name, his “death wish” sounded around the world, his picture splashed on the cover of Newsweek and most tabloids. He was quoted as telling the judge who had delivered the death judgment: “You sentenced me to die. Unless it’s a joke or something, I want to go ahead and do it.”
Hardly a year later, on February 9, 1978, Gary Gilmore’s “ghost” wrote to Norman Mailer. His name was Jack Henry Abbott. Like Gilmore, Abbott had been practically “born” into prison, grown into adulthood as a “state-raised convict.” His earliest memories, he said, were that of a string of foster homes he had run away from. Gilmore, on the other hand, had come from an intact, if also dysfunctional, family. After repeated run-ins with the law, he had entered the adult prison system as a habitual criminal, at about the same age that Abbott had entered adult prison, after graduating from six years of reform school and experiencing only seven months of freedom. In age Gilmore and Abbott were only four years apart—Gilmore was born on December 4, 1940; Abbott, on January 21, 1944. Both became career convicts.
Abbott had read “somewhere” that Mailer was working on the Gilmore saga, still sizzling in the public memory since the sensational execution in which the condemned prisoner’s last words to the prison warden were allegedly, “Let’s do it.” Abbott claimed that he had known Gilmore at Utah State Prison—had even cared for or written to the same girl from prison—and considered him a “good convict,” a man of honor who was respected in prison because he was feared in prison. Abbott had been in prison long enough to know its evil firsthand. “Only after fifteen years in prison,” he told Mailer, “does one begin to see what is happening to us.” He urged him not to listen to anybody who had been in and out of prison for twenty years. That kind of convict knew nothing, he said. Neither did “those sheltered ghetto shit talkers” who would die of fright when confronted with the violence he had faced. “I can tell you stories and help you. I’d like to.”1
* * *
Abbott was thirty-four when he first wrote to Mailer from the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, where he was being held temporarily. He had begun his adult imprisonment in 1963, in the Utah State Prison in Draper, where Gilmore had also been confined—and executed. Convicted at the age of eighteen of forging checks worth more than $20,000 from an establishment he had burglarized, Abbott was initially sentenced to a maximum of five years; his time was extended to a term of three to twenty years for killing an inmate and assaulting another. That was in 1966. Five years later, in 1971, he escaped from Draper, possibly the first prisoner to do so, and remained a fugitive for six weeks. He was apprehended after holding up a bank in Denver for the “express purpose,” he told Mailer, of getting into the federal prison system. For this crime, he was sentenced to a term of nineteen years, after which he was to be returned to Utah to complete his twenty-year sentence. Of his last twenty years of incarceration, including the first six at the Utah State Industrial School for Boys, he had been “free” only seven months.
During his confinement at Draper, he claimed to have spent more than five years in solitary confinement. According to Warden Sam Smith, “The majority of [Abbott’s] time in prison [there] was spent in segregation and Maximum Security because of numerous and repeated disciplinary reports.” Even so, Abbott was given a parole hearing for May 1966, “provided he held a clean institutional record”—which he did not maintain. Between 1966 and 1971, when he escaped with another inmate, Abbott had received thirty incident and disciplinary reports, including the assault of two prison guards.2 When Mailer read this report, on the eve of Abbott’s release in 1981, he naively scoffed at “friend Smith” calling Abbott “a management problem.” Despite clear evidence in Abbott’s letters to the contrary, the author of The Executioner’s Song was willing to bet that Abbott was no longer violent or a danger to society.
Some think Abbott was simply good at conning his middle-class friends. Jerzy Kosinski, probably best known for the dramatization of his novel Being There, evidently thought so. He and Abbott had corresponded in the early seventies, when Kosinski was president of the American chapter of PEN and involved in the “prison movement.” As president of PEN, he had reactivated its prisoners’ program, in which books were sent to prisoners, who were encouraged to enter writing contests in the various genres. Abbott submitted fiction, but it was surely based on the hard facts of a lifetime in prison. “He wrote his first letter to me in 1973,” Kosinski told an interviewer, “because he had read The Painted Bird; and because in the novel the boy is saved by the Red Army, Abbott assumed … I was, like him, a Soviet sympathizer.” This misunderstanding eventually led to an unpleasant parting of the ways in which Abbott, a Marxist-Leninist and a pro-Stalinist, accused Kosinski of using without permission ideas from some of his letters in the novel Cockpit (1975). “Abbott,” Kosinski complained, “embarked on the most sustained, vile barrage of personal, sexual, political, and aesthetic abuse, dissecting my novels and filtering them through his notion of my betrayal of mankind…” (Later, Abbott tried to make amends, but Kosinski had had enough and answered no more of his letters. “I didn’t reply, and he abandoned me as a potential rescue system.” He waited, Kosinski added, until he came upon Mailer, hoping he would be more receptive than Kosinski to his boiling sense of outrage.)3
As Abbott would write in In the Belly of the Beast (1981), as a sixth-grade dropout, his formal schooling consisted almost solely of reading in prison. By 1978, he had become a communist and was running informal prison seminars on Marxism. He was steeped in the works of many other philosophers, works by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre, for example. “Over the years,” he wrote in his blockbuster book, “my sister had books sent to me from a single bookstore, and the people who owned it searched out titles they did not have in stock, free of extra charge, to send to me.”4 Ninety percent of his vocabulary he had never heard spoken by the time he wrote to Mailer. His IQ, he noted, was 138 (for whatever that’s worth today, Mailer’s was supposedly 170), and Abbott claimed that he had spent his life as a “good convict”—that is, not an obedient inmate but one who never “snitched,” an assertion that would ultimately be challenged.
* * *
Initially famous for The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948 and widely considered the best novel to come out of World War II, Mailer spent the next thirty years trying to return to the same literary heights. Although his name hadn’t ever been altogether out of the limelight, or the journalistic headlights, for that matter, it also hadn’t—because of his outsized public personality—been there entirely for his bestselling fiction or even for the fact that he won his first Pulitzer for The Armies of the Night in 1969. Dependent solely on his writings and beset by alimony and child support payments, as he went from wife to wife, he wrote too fast. His career pattern bore an uncanny resemblance to that of one of his literary heroes, Theodore Dreiser. Like Dreiser, who first became famous with Sister Carrie in 1900 and again with An American Tragedy in 1925, Mailer would begin and essentially end his literary career with masterpieces. Indeed, if Dreiser is, as he is known, the “Father of American Realism,” Mailer became his literary son with his pair of deterministic novels. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Mailer had taken a seminar taught by the renowned scholar Howard Mumford Jones that focused on Dreiser and William Faulkner. It was a new connection even for the late 1940s, long before we came to see clearly the psychological underpinnings of An American Tragedy, which Mailer would use as his model for telling the story of Gary Gilmore. Mailer was intimately familiar with both of Dreiser’s masterpieces, if not his entire oeuvre.
In Marilyn he had suggested a parallel between Carrie Meeber and Marilyn Monroe, each a jeune fille in the urban jungle of America. While on the West Coast as a hopeful screenwriter, an experience that provided the basis for The Deer Park (1955), Mailer tutored Shelley Winters on the role of Roberta Alden, the factory girl seduced and murdered in An American Tragedy, help that convinced director George Stevens to give her the part in A Place in the Sun (1951), a dramatization of the novel. Roberta, Mailer told Winters, is “a girl completely without artifice.” So was Carrie in the beginning of Sister Carrie, the girl next door, or kid sister, before she found her footing in Chicago and New York.5
Sister Carrie had come right out of Dreiser’s tattered youth and peripatetic family, whereas An American Tragedy had come from the newspapers. The first had been fiction; the second had been “fact,” or creative nonfiction. Dreiser’s books in between never quite made it as American classics, at least not in the way Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy did. The same became true for Mailer, whose fictional work between The Naked and the Dead and The Executioner’s Song had the same kind of belabored plots as Dreiser’s middle works. In both cases, the dialogue had a tinny sound to it, and the plots were somewhat overwrought, as if an argument rather than a theme were at the heart of the works. In Barbary Shore (1951), for example, whatever plot Mailer envisioned for his second novel evaporates into a political argument about the dangers of post–World War II fascism.
Both writers required a flesh-and-blood protagonist to relocate themselves in their writing lives. Mailer’s turning point from fiction to fact, or creative nonfiction, probably came first with The Armies of the Night (1968), for which he won not only the Pulitzer but also the National Book Award. Having taken part in the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, he married in his narrative the historical and the fictional to drive one of the first nails into the coffin of a war that was unwinnable. This nonfiction pattern was continued elsewhere, most notably in The Fight (1975). In fact, one of the chapter titles in this short work is called “The Executioner’s Song.” It applies to Muhammad Ali’s destruction of heavyweight George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Mailer had been ringside to cover the fight for Playboy, but the story he subsequently wrote about the former Belgian Congo became something more than journalism. In modern-day Zaire he found in Ali the “psychic outlaw” he had envisioned in “The White Negro” (1957), somebody who would strike back at society for its hypocrisies. The prison movement of the early 1970s may have fueled his fascination with such a hero, though the figure appears in earlier fiction, indeed as early as Lieutenant Hearn in The Naked and the Dead.
* * *
From the very beginning, Jack Abbott was clearly looking for another “potential rescue system.” Doubtless, Mailer saw that, but he was nevertheless drawn into Abbott’s world. 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. The convict had his own “voice.” Hence, as the apprentice sought to acquire Mailer’s support for his first parole hearing in the federal system, which he thought might take place as early as 1982, he not only educated the author but also intrigued and infatuated him. His problem, he told Mailer, was that as a state prisoner in Utah, he had been labeled one of the “most dangerous.” Now in the federal system, he was having the same problem. Just the year before, he had been found “guilty” of tying up a guard and stabbing him. Yet for some reason he was indicted only for striking a prison doctor who was trying to “zonk” him with Thorazine.
Saying that he couldn’t write (“wish I could!”), he proceeded to astonish Mailer with stories of overpowering detail, drama, and irony. He offered the novelist access to his state and federal files as long as it was merely for the purpose of comprehending prison, saying that Mailer would never get another chance to obtain material as valuable as he was offering him. “Frankly,” he said, “there is no prisoner who has been involved in so much in-fighting at prison as myself who is still alive.” There wasn’t, he added, a single federal penitentiary that would willingly accept him as a permanent transfer. Only somebody like Jack Henry Abbott, Mailer soon came to realize, could get the author inside the head of Gary Mark Gilmore; only he could approximate the condemned man’s inner rage and paranoia brought on by a lifetime behind bars. Abbott signed off in this first letter of February 9, 1978, as he would throughout their long correspondence, even after he had been let out and killed again—“In Peace, Jack.”
Mailer responded to Jack’s first letter almost immediately. It had been delivered through a third party, the literary agent Morton Janklow, so he probably didn’t read it for a week or more. On February 23, 1978, he wrote Abbott that he was in the middle of the book and had only six months to “get the writing done before I’m dead broke.” His advance was “half of a half million,” but he had fourteen people to support. That meant, he later added, that he needed to make at least that much money every year. He was now married to his sixth wife, Norris Church, who had just given him his eighth child, John Buffalo Mailer, born April 16, 1978.
What he was trying to write in The Executioner’s Song was a “factual” novel. He would soon realize from Abbott’s letters that Gilmore’s seeming twin hit powerfully on the psychology of violence in prison: “There are parts of this book,” he told Abbott, “that I don’t pretend to understand and prison life is a big part of it.”6 He sought to capture and dramatize the psychology of violence in prison. Abbott’s very first letter convinced Mailer that he had much to learn about prison. Yet he wondered just where they would start. They had little more than six months to correspond before his publisher’s deadline. He was also slightly edgy about Abbott, saying that he hadn’t quite “understood” the prisoner’s reference to “sheltered ghetto shit-talkers who would die of fright if confronted with real violence.” Abbott would approach the same racism in In the Belly of the Beast, which came only in part from the original prison letters he would send Mailer. “How would you like to be forced all the days of your life,” he wrote, “to sit beside a stinking, stupid wino every morning for breakfast? Or for some loud fool in his infinite ignorance to be at any moment able to say (slur) ‘Gimme a cigarette, man.’”7 In his letter to Mailer of October 8, 1978, the fool is a “loud nigger.” Also left out of the book: “And I just look into his sleazy eyes and want to kill his ass there in front of god and everyone because it’s not [that] he is black but that anyone with sense knows if he is not my friend he doesn’t dare hit on me for anything.”
Copyright © 2017 by Jerome Loving