And then Franz Kafka throws a bomb into a library full of happy readers. Kafka not only wants us to read books that wound and stab us, but also is sure that without books we’d be happier. Talk to anybody not in the reading life and they’re likely to say they read a “good” book once in a while, something warm and cozy, something scary on a dark night, something pleasing to their needs and intentions because its raining outside, or because they have the sniffles. They read to pass the time because the plane is late or they’re bored with television and their husbands are on the golf course, or their wives are upstairs in the TV room playing bridge with a group. Almost anybody could write a book that would make them happy, if they had the time, if they weren’t punching the time clock and sitting in their cubicle pressing a cursor through spreadsheets. Does anybody want a book to hurt us worse than somebody we love more than ourselves dying, more than hearing about a suicide, more than a car wreck?


Consider this short section from the beginning of “The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer, his Pulitzer Prize winning book about stone-killer Gary Gilmore, who murdered a motel clerk and a gas station attendant in Utah, and was executed for his crime.

Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared. The apple trees were their grandmother’s best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda’s earliest recollection of Gary.

…Then her mother, Ida, told her that Aunt Bessie had called from Portland, and was in a very blue mood. Gary had been put in Reform School. So Brenda wrote him a letter, and Gary sent an answer all the way back from Oregon, and said he felt bad putting his family through what he did….On the other hand, he sure didn’t like it in Reform School. His dream when he came out, he wrote, was to be a mobster and push people around.   He also said Gary Cooper was his favorite movie star.”

On the run from a chaotic emotional and physical life, I took “The Executioner’s Song” with me to Montana, where I thought I’d start over, cleanse myself of all the bad associations back home and the missteps dogging my life. Such were my misconceptions that I found myself in a classically morose, standardized motel room in Missoula, one briskly cold late fall day. I went out walking along the Clark’s Fork River downtown. I was alone and lonely, the town seemed old and decrepit in the failing light, and the trees along the streets were bare. Even the mountains with their dusting of snow seemed threatening. I was scheduled next day to drive up to Thompson Falls and interview with a couple of lawyers who were looking for a bright young man to come and help them with all the new business they’d brought in, lumber mill bosses, various miners and prospectors, ranchers haggling with neighbors over water rights, and Blackfeet drunks on the criminal docket. In that bleak motel room I read about Gary and his cousin Brenda, Gary’s drinking, his violent fantasies, the way he’d fool people yet wind up in a dead-end of angry delusion. I read about the Mormon life, the high lonesome desert, about alcohol and bimbo love, tattooed bodies in bed. For no reason one can fathom, Gary walks into a motel lobby late one night and executes a clerk with a bullet to the back of his head.

Everything made me sick then. I could feel the dread and anxiety invade my body.  It crawled all over me. I turned on every light in the room, even the bathroom and shower stall overheads, but nothing helped. I opened the motel door for some air and space, but all I could see was the dimly lit motel lobby with its lonely clerk standing in a pool of gray lamp glow, staring out at the empty streets, waiting for someone like Gary to pop in and order him to the floor, face down.

The book lay on the end table, daring me to finish it. It seemed like a living thing that was sucking the air out of the room. For a long time, I couldn’t do it, couldn’t make myself pick it up. I’d like to say my hands were shaking and maybe they were. I was certainly frightened and disgusted, full of pity for the clerk, living with him through those last few seconds. Somehow dying with him too.

Without sleep, I drove up to Thompson Falls the next morning, and interviewed with the lawyers who were welcoming and even charming. I ate dinner with them and their wives at a nice house on a hill overlooking the Clark’s Fork, the river a quarter mile wide, running fast even in fall between low cliffs.

We drank a lot of wine and talked about loneliness, family life, and business. They explained that there were no unmarried women in Thompson Falls. Everybody was paired up and paired up early. The question returned time and time again to the same topic: What would I do with myself in such a place? They knew the drill. You had to survive the winter. You had to work hard to keep yourself together. We drank and talked and had a lot of laughs.

Driving back to Missoula, “The Executioner’s Song” sat on the passenger’s seat beside me like an evil hitchhiker in some noir film. I could barely bring myself to look at it. Back home, I finished the book. I didn’t move to Thompson Falls and take the job, even though it was offered happily. What would I do with myself up there all winter? I’d probably drink and fall into emotional and physical chaos.

Thirty years later I think of that clerk, often. When I do, I’m back in that motel room trying to stay warm, dodging paranoia and anxiety by turning on all the lights, too nervous and upset to go down to the liquor store for a bottle of wine. It feels like someone is stabbing me. It feels like someone I love more than myself has died. It feels like I’ve been banished into the forest, far from everyone.