Author and apprentice and the story of incarceration
JACK AND NORMAN: A STATE-RAISED CONVICT AND THE LEGACY OF NORMAN MAILER’S ‘THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG’ By Jerome Loving Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 256 pages
I’ve not read “In the Belly of the Beast,” Jack Henry Abbott’s book about his prison experiences and his half-baked commentary on Marxism and Communism, and I don’t plan to. But I have read Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” which was one of the few books by Norman Mailer that I liked.
Jerome Loving’s “Jack and Norman” is a book about the two books and the relationship between the two authors; Abbott, a convicted criminal, and Norman Mailer, a celebrated author who pursued controversy and greatness.
“This is the story of the author and the apprentice. It is the story of literary influence and tragedy,” writes Mr. Loving in the introduction to the book. “It is the story of a state-raised convict, the “by-blow,” as Melville says of another 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.”
This is certainly a lot of ground to cover in one book, but Mr. Loving largely succeeds.
Mr. Mailer was instrumental in getting Abbott, a check forger, bank robber and violent inmate, paroled from prison in 1981. He praised Abbott’s writing ability and told prison officials that he planned to hire him as his literary assistant. Abbott’s prison book was about to be published and he became a free man again with money and celebrity advocates. Six weeks after his release, Abbott and two women went to a late-hour restaurant after a publisher’s party in Abbott’s honor. Abbott got into an argument with Richard Adan, the restaurant’s manager, and the two went outside to an alley where Abbott stabbed the manager to death. Abbott then fled the scene and became a fugitive.
Mr. Loving tells us that Norman Mailer was less than half-way through a first draft of ‘The Executioner’s Song,” his factual novel about convicted double murderer Gary Gilmore, who was executed by firing squad after his insistence that Utah carry out his death sentence, when the famous writer heard from Abbott, then-Federal Prisoner 87098-132 at the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.
Mr. Mailer was happy to correspond with Abbott, who, like Gilmore, had spent much of his life incarcerated. Born into a dysfunctional family, he was raised in a series of foster homes from which he often ran away. After six years in reform schools, he graduated to the adult prison system. Like Gilmore, Abbot was a habitual and career criminal.
Abbot claimed to know Gilmore at Utah State Prison and in his frequent letters to Mr. Mailer he provided a primer on the mindset and mores of convicts like himself and Gilmore. Mr. Mailer leaned heavily on Abbott’s letters while he wrote the book on Gilmore, which he considered to be his masterpiece. The book would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
A sixth-grade drop-out, Abbott became a voracious reader of philosophy in prison and became a communist in 1978. Abbott told his famous pen pal that he was a “good convict,” which he described as a prisoner who never informed, or “snitched,” rather than an obedient one. (Which was one of Abbott’s many falsehoods, as he did in fact inform on other prisoners).
Mr. Mailer was very interested in Abbott’s tales of abuse by prison officials and the violence between prisoners. Abbott wrote that at 21 he inflicted multiple stab wounds on a fellow prisoner, which he described as “prison combat.” He was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and more years were added to his already lengthy sentence. His story, if you can believe Abbott’s braggadocio, was that the other prisoner was trying to rape him.
Mr. Mailer also stabbed someone. In 1960 the intoxicated author stabbed his second wife twice with a small penknife. Rather than being sent to prison, Mr. Mailer was involuntarily committed to Bellevue Hospital for 17 days. He later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of assault and was given a suspended sentence and three years’ probation.
After killing Richard Adan, Abbott fled New York and escaped to Mexico and then hid out in New Orleans. The most interesting part of the book to me was the story of how New York Detective William J. Majewska tracked and captured Abbott. I’d like to know more about the manhunt. (The detective later went to work for Mr. Mailer, doing research on his book on Lee Harvey Oswald).
Abbott’s main defense at the trial for the killing of Richard Adan was that he was a state-raised convict, blaming the prison system for his violent act. He was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Abbott wrote a second book while back in prison called “My Return,” which was described by one writer as obsessive, arrogant and cold.
Abbott hanged himself in his cell in 2002. Mr. Mailer, who was vilified in the press for helping Abbott get released from prison, died in 2007 at age 84.