Norman Mailer’s Nightmare: 30 Years Revisited

Ray Cavanaugh

Norman Mailer SpeakingIt has been said that Norman Mailer spent most of his life trying to live up to the machismo of his prose.

Jack Henry Abbott had spent most of his life in prison. He was a hardcore outsider, and one with a considerable intellect, despite a near total lack of formal education.

Here was a man who could live up to the most vivid of Mailer’s testosterone-drenched narratives, and had the verbal gifts to contribute his own engaging prose.

One could make a case that, in Jack Henry Abbott, Mailer saw his ego ideal. He did what he could for the convict, finding a publisher for his book of prison letters, then lobbying for his parole.

Despite Mailer’s celebrity, this latter cause was no small undertaking; even by inmate standards, Mr. Abbott had a rather complex background…

...In 1944, Abbott entered this world on a U.S. Army base in Michigan. He was the result of a five-dollar exchange between an Irish-American G.I. and a Chinese prostitute. It was a rather unglamorous debut for young Abbott, whose hardships were only beginning. Surrendered right after birth, he was shuffled through various foster care venues. By age ten, he was spending time in detention facilities.

While incarcerated for a forgery conviction, twenty-one-year-old Abbott mortally stabbed his opponent in a brawl. Several years later, the sly inmate escaped and proceeded to embark on a bank-robbing spree. Soon overtaken by federal authorities, Abbott was hauled back to prison, where the belligerent soul was a frequent guest of solitary confinement.

Timeline of the Life of Jack Henry Abbott

Impulsive criminal though he was, Abbott also became a voracious reader and took up writing. Then came 1980; Norman Mailer was the ubiquitous figure of American letters, riding the glory of his Pulitzer-winning ‘Executioner’s Song', which profiled a convicted killer who demanded execution instead of a life-sentence.

Having somehow procured Mailer’s contact info, Abbott began sending letters to the famous writer, telling him that the Executioner’s real-life protagonist was largely a poseur and that he, Abbott, could supply a more realistic account of life behind bars. Mailer was so enticed that he told the inmate to write a full-length manuscript.

The result was Belly of the Beast, in which Abbott addresses topics ranging from foreign relations, to spiritual inquiry, to the cultivation of marijuana. As one would expect, he also speaks of life in a maximum-security prison - the transactions, tensions, hierarchies, grim triumphs and appalling degradations, as well as the literal and figurative opiates by which many inmates pursue an illusory escape.

Though many disagreed with Abbott’s arguments, the general opinion of his lyrical intensity ranged from stellar to riveting. Such feedback fueled Mailer’s decision to lobby for the convict’s parole, telling reporters that “culture is worth a little risk.”

Parole was granted, much to the dismay of several prison officials. Six weeks later, on July 18, 1981, Abbott wanted to use the bathroom at a Manhattan café. A twenty-two-year-old waiter told him the bathroom was only for staff use. So Abbott grabbed a steak knife and sunk it into the young man’s chest. The attack was fatal.

During his brief freedom, Abbott had been the glamorous bad-boy of New York literati; it is quite possible that the café waiter was the first person to tell him no. Following an interstate manhunt, Abbott and his terminal fury were returned to prison.

Backlash came immediately, branding Abbott as the worst sort of psychopath, one who fills his remorseless void with self-pity and indignation. The prostitute’s son had really made quite a stir, though he profited not one dime from his book, having been sued by his victim’s kin for a sum exceeding one-million times that of the 1943 transaction through which he had been conceived.

In 2001, Abbott was denied parole. The following year, having confronted the fact that he would most likely die in prison, he chose to expedite the process. His limp body was later found hanging from his own shoelace.

As sociologist Francis Glamser wrote: “Dying in prison is the ultimate confirmation of a wasted life.” One could assume Abbott realized as much, before his great escape at the end of the knotted lace. The convict’s final literary endeavor was his suicide note. Its content remains undisclosed.

Mailer continued to face widespread outrage from those who blamed him for having enabled Abbott’s slaughter of a young man. Before his death in 2007, Mailer remarked on the issue as, “another event in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about.”

As for Abbott, he had always been close-lipped on the subject of regret. He did, however, write another book, in which he somehow blamed society for his return to prison…

…When Norman Mailer said “culture is worth a little risk,” this was not what he had in mind.