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15th Annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes : WINNER: MIKAL GILMORE 'SHOT IN THE HEART' : A Fidelity Born in Blood

November 13, 1994|TOM CLARK | Tom Clark, a biography prize judge, is the author of "The Exile of Celine" (Random House)

The problem of socio-pathology is a mask placed by an administered society over a much more ancient mystery, the problem of evil: its recurrent manifestations, its apparently deep sources in human nature, the trail of waste and ruin it leaves in its wake. Does evil run in families as a blood taint, a genetic fate that overwhelms the individual soul lost like a leaf on the current of its uncontrollable compulsion to manifest itself? Or is it something society does to a person, the legacy not of blood but of life in the world?

The fact that the answers to such ponderous questions are as impossibly elusive and bewildering as life itself does not make the earnest pursuit of them any the less pertinent, of course; and that's more than ever true in a time when the specter of evil stares back at us through the eyes of every spur-of-the-moment killer as news images--or from the eyes of the imagined victims who peer warily at us from our mirrors, armed with such distrust and apprehension.

Mikal Gilmore's haunting, arresting family history is a serious, painstaking and painful meditation on the sources of evil, all the more unsettling because its investigation takes place not in the clean, well-lighted safety zone of social ideology but in the tawdry fields of America's waste places, where Gilmore finds seeds of destruction and mayhem that issue in the spilled blood of his own brothers--one a murderer executed by firing squad, one the victim of a fatal stabbing, one a sad defeated drifter on mean streets.

The notoriety of the second-born Gilmore sibling, Gary, who in 1976 senselessly killed two young Mormon men and then demanded to be executed, thus becoming the first man to be legally executed in America in over a decade, provides the obvious commercial hook for "Shot in the Heart." Gary's last days on Utah's Death Row in the fall of 1977 were as glaring a public sensation in their epoch as the ordeal of O. J. Simpson is in ours. (A subsequent Norman Mailer book and Tommy Lee Jones movie made the Gilmore case even more of a cause celebre, while the first shock wave of the punk rock explosion produced "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," turning the killer's steely gaze--and his view of the "normal" world from the other side of a murderous pathology--into a neo-noir icon of alienation and despair.)

But Mikal, youngest of the four Gilmore brothers and the sole survivor enabled to tell their grim tale, digs beneath the disposable headlines. His harrowing "inside" version of the Gary Gilmore story transforms the hyped-up, pseudo-mythic media image of the "natural born killer" back into something as disturbingly human as our worst nightmares--or our problematic daytime present.

Tracing the roots of Gary Gilmore's violent fate in his family's dysfunction, Mikal speculates that Gary's demand for his own death may have been guided by a morbid craving for retribution inculcated in the Gilmore boys by their doomy mother--a spooky eccentric who subscribed to the reality of ghosts, preached a warped version of the Mormon concept of blood atonement and deceived her sons into believing her own father had made her watch a hanging.

But as unbalanced as the mother appears here, and as psychically maimed as her sons turn out, at the true heart of this memoir of family disintegration stands the complex, largely mysterious figure of the father. Frank Gilmore Sr., an itinerant grifter and denizen of dead-end America who dragged his family around the dingy urban margins of the West, took out his rage at life on his wife and three eldest sons. Only Mikal, born nearly 10 years later than his siblings, when his father had dwindled to a worn-out old man, was spared Frank Sr.'s savage beatings. In describing his own angry rejection of the compulsory violent branding whose "indelible signs" had marked his brothers for life, Mikal honestly admits to feeling more than a trace of guilt at having been left out of that "fidelity born of blood," which bound the other male Gilmores in a destructive mutual stranglehold with the world and with each other.

Mikal's search here for the pivotal instance of his family's tragedy--the "moment in this story when everything went wrong"--leads him back to the family's stay in '50s Portland, a time in which, as a teen-age rebel, his brother Gary conceived the "ideal of badness," which to him "would always remain a guiding ethos."

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