In 1979 Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize and earned a small fortune with his sympathetic portrayal of murderer Gary Gilmore. Entitled The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s book devoted 1,050 pages to the last days of the two-time murderer, and only 18 pages to the victims. A year later, 22-year-old Eric Kaminsky, a promising young musician, was mugged, slashed through the aorta, and thrown onto a New York subway track to die. Now, five years after, Eric’s mother strikes back at Mailer, the muggers, New York City, God, and—well—virtually everybody. But despite many wasted shots, Alice Kaminsky’s The Victim’s Song manages to score many telling hits on deserving targets.
Alice Kaminsky, a professor of English at the State University of New York at Cortland, allows her bitterness to come through virtually every page. Yet most readers will tolerate the sharp, personal barbs and the endless self-pity because they have never known the pain of her position.
Kaminsky blasts New York City “as paradigm for all the cities in which violence is a pervasive and accepted phenomenon,” and rips the criminal justice system. She reserves special treatment for New York Governor Mario Cuomo who, while refusing to force his individual beliefs regarding abortion on others because society has no antiabortion consensus, has four times vetoed capital punishment legislation which is clearly favored by a consensus of voters. Cuomo’s daughter, son, and wife have been assaulted and robbed at various times in New York City, and his 79-year-old father-in-law was hospitalized after being severely beaten by muggers. A conservative may be a liberal who’s been mugged, but liberal orthodoxy appears to survive assaults on closest kin.
Cuomo continues to make such statements as, “I do not believe that responding to violence with violence or death with death is the answer. It does not undo the loss.” To which the Victim replies, “No one who argues for the death penalty uses this kind of irrelevant rhetoric. We kill a murderer to show that the life of an innocent person is worth more than the life of a murderer; we do it to punish him, to prevent him from killing again, and to express our moral outrage.”
The hottest spot in Kaminsky’s hell is reserved not for Mario Cuomo but for Norman Mailer. Kaminsky’s attack on Mailer’s prose style and artistic message, waged with a butcher’s cleaver and not a scalpel, is unrelenting. Kaminsky accuses Mailer of romanticizing violence and the violent, complaining that Mailer deliberately fosters empathy for Gilmore by comparing him to a “tender, kind, scared rabbit” instead of “a monster . . . a snake.”
She also indicts Mailer for getting Jack Abbott out of prison, only to murder Richard Adan, a promising young playwright working as a waiter, when denied use of the restaurant toilet. Mailer refused to abandon his protege even after he murdered again; instead, he fingered—you got it—society, not to mention the fascist police state, the rich, and nuclear weapons.
Kaminsky’s apparent theme, that her son Eric died for your sins—and yours and yours and yours—is a bit much. But the sense of outrage in The Victim’s Song compels us to take a hard look at a modern culture in which murderers and novelists collaborate as partners in crime.
[The Victim’s Song, by Alice R. Kaminsky; Buffalo: Prometheus Books]