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Norman Mailer’s Fatal Friendship

Jack Henry Abbott was a talented writer and a convicted murderer. What made Mailer believe he wouldn't kill again?

Victor Drees / Getty Images

Two men in particular had reason to celebrate the evening of July 9, 1981. One received the Pulitzer Prize the year prior, having refashioned his literary career after a series of controversies, failures, and skirmishes. The other was barely a month out of prison, a murderer whose letters, collected in book form, promised an inside look at the horrors of incarcerated life.

Thomas Dunne Books, 256 pp., $25.99

The latter was Jack Henry Abbott. His book was toasted with white wine that July night at Il Mulino in Greenwich Village. The former was Norman Mailer, who had provided the introduction, an extended thank-you for Abbott’s help on writing that Pulitzer winner, The Executioner’s Song.

The celebration was short-lived. Nine days later, the day before In the Belly of the Beast received a rave review in the New York Times, Abbott was a fugitive. He had murdered again. Freedom evaporated. Once captured, in late September, Abbott would never see the outside world again.

Writers like Michael Mewshaw and Felice Picano assigned blame to Mailer in subsequent essays on Abbott’s book, arguing Mailer went out of his way to ignore Abbott’s lengthy criminal record stretching back to age eleven. Those offering support at Abbott’s trial included Jean Malaquais and Susan Sarandon, part of a group of intellectuals and artists claiming Abbott’s literary talent merited leniency. Three and a half decades later, the finger-pointing continues about where violence meets life and art, and where the responsibility falls.

Jerome Loving’s Jack and Norman is a sturdy, competent account of the tangled relationship between the multi-incarcerated Abbott and the variably-celebrated and infamous Mailer. Loving hits all the notes he’s supposed to hit while carving out a slice of literary history, generously quoting from unpublished letters: He sets up Mailer’s fascination with criminality and his failures of empathy, and questions whether Mailer took enough responsibility when his artistic ideals clashed with real-life consequences. Loving also uses the episode to try to illustrate larger failings of the criminal justice system, an issue that fits awkwardly around the contours of a smaller-scale, if still ethically complicated, tale of the ruined remnants of 1950s literary culture. Jack and Norman is a book that makes one wonder why it took so long for someone to write a full-length treatment of the whole mess—and then again, why it can’t quite measure up to the personalities of the people involved.

Mailer, of course, was a confidence man in the literal sense, brimming with it even when it didn’t become him. The success of his 1948 debut, The Naked and the Dead vaulted him into Great American Novel territory, so he swaggered and swanned and womanized even when subsequent novels fared worse. He benefited from near-universal cossetting after his near-murder of second wife Adele Morales. He ran for mayor (quixotic!), advertised for himself, had little use for feminism, and in between the Sturm und Drang evolved into a formidable nonfiction chronicler of protest (Armies of the Night), boxing (The Fight), and the criminal mind (The Executioner’s Song).

Yet the Pulitzer-winning Executioner was atypical for Mailer, which perhaps explains why it’s so good. The thousand-plus pages on the life, crimes, imprisonment, and execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore—the first man to be put to death after a decade-long moratorium of the death penalty—read fast and lean. A recent re-read consumed three solid days at the expense of nearly everything else.

The material didn’t originate with Mailer, but instead with Lawrence Schiller, the photographer-slash-media hustler who shared copyright and ends up a major (and fascinating) character in the book. We learn as much about Schiller’s ruthless need for exclusivity, promising (and paying) tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of interviewing Gilmore and controlling who else might do so, as we do his growing fatigue for chasing those exclusives all across the country, to the detriment of his health, family, and morality.

Mailer isn’t present directly in Executioner but he is there, everywhere, through his chosen concentrations. He transforms Gary Gilmore’s wasted life, nearly half of it spent in prison for crimes ranging from the petty to the murderous (robbing two men and killing them because he could) into sordid poetry (“It was a .22 Magnum and he had told her it was capable of putting a hole in you like a .45”). He elevates Gilmore’s short affair with Nicole Baker, at the time barely 20 with two kids and two bad marriages behind her, into a kind of underbelly Madame Bovary, deserved or otherwise. He highlights the absurdity of a criminal justice system that sentences people to death and then refuses to let them die, often for decades.

Mailer had little time to complete Executioner, taking just fifteen months in all. He knew he needed a lot of help (thank his longtime assistant Judith McNally in particular for doing, as Mailer notes in the acknowledgments, “ten years of work in one as my secretary, interviewer, research assistant, and critical reader”.) So when a self-described “state-raised convict” named Jack Henry Abbott began to write Mailer with anecdotes of Utah State Prison and Gary Gilmore (whom Abbott knew at USP and another prison in Ohio), Mailer understood he’d been given a gift: “Your letters 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.”

Mailer and Abbott’s correspondence grew as each man needed the other. Mailer desired authenticity, grist for the voluminous mill that would be Executioner. Abbott desired attention, a willing listener not only to his credible descriptions of the brutality of prison life (“You can’t stand the sight of each other and yet you are doomed to stand and face another every moment of every day for years without end”) but to his less credible—and frankly, fatuous—take on Marxist philosophy, built on a random assortment of books collected in magpie fashion.

Loving, in Jack and Norman, is necessarily harsh on Abbott’s philosophical bleatings, pointing out their childish inconsistencies whenever possible. He also rightfully focuses on Abbott’s racism (despite the prisoner’s denials) and his low regard of women. He characterized McNally, who had accidentally lost the first three months of the Mailer-Abbott correspondence, as “just another example of what it is about women I do not like; what it is that repulses me in them.”

Abbott’s letters as a whole so impressed Mailer, though, that the author not only thanked the prisoner profusely in Executioner for describing incarceration “in language whose equal I have not encountered in prison literature in recent years”, but also pressed for the letters to be published—first in the New York Review of Books, and later in book form, as In the Belly of the Beast.

Mailer’s name carried weight with the Utah parole board, too, as did his promise that Abbott, if released, would work as his literary assistant. With hindsight, it seems inevitable that Abbott’s freedom—he was released in June 1981—was short-lived. Richard Adan, an actor and writer who had the terrible misfortune to encounter a drunken, raging, vituperative Abbott in the early morning hours of July 18, paid the ultimate price.

The signs of Abbott’s doomed post-release life are there in In the Belly of the Beast even if you don’t look very close. “What if I am only justifying myself unconsciously with these words and they are silly excuses to be an asshole?” Abbott wrote to Mailer, with respect to his hopes for freedom. And later, speaking more directly on the subject, “Am I to be content to walk free along the same streets as men who have entered my cell and beaten me to the floor with full knowledge and consent of everyone?”

Which is why Loving’s repeated attempts to make Jack and Norman an indictment of the prison system don’t quite work. Yes, it is upsetting that Abbott was imprisoned for most of his life, subject to brutality civilians can barely fathom, even when they are presented with indisputable evidence. Prisoners should be treated humanely; solitary confinement is torture. (Loving includes a lengthy section on Kalief Browder, the teenage boy who committed suicide after years of solitary confinement in Rikers Island, that feels tacked on.)

But such social justice issues wouldn’t have mattered to Mailer and other members of the Manhattan literary intelligentsia if Abbott had lacked a way with words. (It is worth noting that Abbott’s rise to literary fame stemmed as much from Mailer’s influence as it did from the inclinations of editors and agents, who enabled him to publish and who wrote letters to the parole board for him.) That Abbott wrote well, or appeared to, was his ticket to freedom. It made him seem extraordinary, when what hidden in plain sight, alongside ordinariness, was an unquenchable sense of rage. His rehabilitation as a literary figure was doomed to fail because as soon as Abbott became a civilian, he ceased to be a character and a literary curiosity. He could only define himself in relation to a system; he lacked the tools to define himself as a free man.

Nor did these larger issues matter ultimately to Abbott. He talked a good game in his letters. But once free, the disconnect between his literary persona and the smaller, simpler, and rougher man was too large a chasm to overcome. After his conviction for killing Adan, Abbott wrote another book, 1987’s My Return. But the spark he’d captured in In the Belly of the Beast had evaporated. The book found a home with a smaller press, not his original publisher Random House. He and Mailer continued to correspond for a while, but even that connection ceased.

In other words, Abbott is only remembered because he was used, and used in turn. He is not, and should not be, the vehicle to discuss systemic prison reform. He wrote letters to a literary man and became a chess piece in a larger board. He published essays and a book and became an excuse for comfortable editors and journalists to feel they were doing good. And when it all blew up and Abbott went back to prison, of course he would be abandoned, because the character died as soon as he stabbed Richard Adan to death.

Mailer, understandably, had much to reckon with in his role of propping up Abbott for the sake of a literary career deemed more worthy than others. Though he was more forthcoming about his complicity in private letters, the message Mailer sent in public suggested he never quite reached that state. “I never knew a man who had a worse life,” Mailer wrote in a press statement upon Abbott’s 2002 death at the age of 58. “What made it doubly awful is that he brought down on one young man full of promise and left a bomb crater of lost possibilities for many, including most especially himself.”

But Richard Adan had the worse fate: He became a footnote in Abbott’s wretched story. His is the life, thwarted and cut short, that demands greater attention because we’ve all but forgotten it. In our fascination with journalists and murderers—a fascination that I, as a journalist who writes about murderers, share and am fully complicit in—too often we gloss over those who suffer most.

Adan’s father-in-law, Henry Howard, assigned blame to the criminal justice system: “I’m not angry at Mailer or Random House. It’s their job to recognize writing talent and they saw it in Jack Abbott. My quarrel is with the prison authorities, with the Establishment. It’s their job to decide who goes out of prison, and not because of some pressure from great writers or publishers.”

Confidence abounds in those who look upon a person as a story, and those who feel they should be stories. It’s why we are so fascinated with the relationship between journalists and murderers, each side locked in a pas de deux—or perhaps, a folie a deux—of trust and mistrust, betrayal and truth-telling. But as the Mailer-Abbott saga shows, when the story is stripped away, all that remains is senseless tragedy and a bewildering lack of accountability. Because the lesson we are still struggling to learn is that such relationships automatically shut out the victims, when their stories matter equally, if not more, than the murderers we are inclined to glorify.