Au­thor and ap­pren­tice and the story of in­car­cer­a­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Paul Davis Paul Davis is a writer who cov­ers crime, es­pi­onage and ter­ror­ism.

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.

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