in Frieze | 06 SEP 94
Featured in
Issue 18

Shot in the Heart

Mikal Gilmore, Viking

in Frieze | 06 SEP 94

Frank and Bessie Gilmore had four sons. Frank Jr. was drafted into the army, spent some time in the stockade for refusing to fight, was discharged, and went home. After his parents died he disappeared into the Pacific Northwest. Gaylen was a petty thief who ran off to Chicago, only to return a little while later, his belly ruined by knife wounds that he wouldn't explain. The injuries never entirely healed, and he died on an operating table a few months later. Gary spent more time in jail than out, and eventually became a celebrity of sorts: in 1976 he shot and killed two men during a pair of robberies in Utah; he was captured, convicted, and sentenced to death; and he refused his right of appeal, insisting that the state carry out the punishment it had assigned. In January of 1977, he went before a firing squad and was executed. Mikal, the youngest, became an editor at Rolling Stone. 17 years after Gary died, he has written a book, Shot in the Heart, in which he tells his family's story, and wonders why it all went down.

Here in fin de siècle America we prefer our murderers to be mad: from Manson to Dahmer, perfect derangement occupies our horror fantasies, and fills the pages of true-life comic books and hours of tabloid TV. We like the idea of monsters among us, instances of pure pathology and anomie. But Gary was neither a serial killer nor a madman. As Norman Mailer demonstrated in The Executioner's Song, his free journalism account of the case, he was an old fashioned outlaw, enormously intelligent and charismatic, charming and romantic. But he was also violent and base, and he just couldn't keep from fucking up. Nobody really knew why; however often he was asked, Gary wouldn't say, and Mailer's book which is nonetheless a masterpiece, ends in a flurry of speculation. But there are things only brothers know, and Shot in the Heart, looking up through the eyes of the family's youngest, has some terrible stories to tell.

Frank Sr. was, without question, a prize son of a bitch, and his beatings and humiliations of his sons - excepting Mikal, who was the baby - go a long way towards explaining their anger. But Mikal avoids the alarmingly simple quid pro quo of pop psychology - Daddy beat Gary so Gary killed strangers - in favour of something much richer, a theodicy which as weird and harsh as a Robert Johnson song. He hints at blood curses and Mormon mysteries: the book is full of bad dreams and black myths. And there are tales of genealogical distortions (it was hinted, apparently falsely, that Frank Sr. was the illegitimate child of Harry Houdini, and, apparently truly, that Frank Jr.'s real father was actually Frank Sr.'s son from another marriage.) There is Gaylen's leaving home and coming back mysteriously fatally wounded. There is the charged relationship of brothers raised amid violence. There are ghosts and portents, haunted houses. There is Gary's weird apotheosis at the moment of his death. It's like reading a chapter of the Old Testament, with its magical landscape and its harsh sense of justice.

What's more, Mikal has an almost primeval belief in the family as the unit of moral fate, not just because its members help and hurt each other, but because they live with the consequences of each other's actions. And it's true: the devotion between brothers runs in both directions; so does the dependence, the jealousy, the pride, and the guilt. But the youngest brother has the added role of appointed witness and he grows up with a kind of awe, which survives in the man in some subtle form. Little brothers write books.

In his acknowledgments Gilmore notes that he wrote Shot in the Heart in eight months; it is quite long, and his haste shows. He makes odd grammatical blunders, and his tone often lapses into jarring vernacular. Large sections of the book bear out the dictum that there is nothing quite so dull as listening to someone describing their dreams. At the risk of sounding crass, I would say that, judging by what's reprinted in The Executioner's Song, it's Gary, a classic cell block auto-didact, who was the family's deepest thinker and most talented writer.

But in the larger scheme of things, these are cavils. Mikal is perfectly honest where his brother was sly and secretive, and that is the book's saving grace. In page after page, chapter after chapter, he recounts his father's brutality, his mother's excuses, his brothers' cruelty and his own failures - as well as his and their frequent acts of tenderness and love. It is very much a little brother's story, and valuable, I think, more for that perspective than for any light it may shed on Gary Gilmore's case. Baby brother Mikal had much more to reckon with than most of us, and he's discharged his duties to his family and to his readers, with great dignity and fidelity.