BOOK REVIEW / A bad case of blood-poisoning: 'Shot in the Heart' - Mikal Gilmore: Viking, 14.99 pounds

Blake Morrison
Saturday 16 July 1994 23:02

Mercifully, Mikal Gilmore has little recall of playing with his three older brothers. One of his few memories is of wanting to join in a game of darts and being persuaded to take the role of darts board. Frank, the oldest brother, threw his dart six inches from little Mikal's shoe. Gaylen, the youngest, landed even closer. But it was Gary, of course, whose idea the whole thing had been in the first place, who achieved a bullseye, through the middle of his kid brother's toe.

When Mikal looks at old photographs of his brothers now, he still feels left out. Given that Gary grew up to become a famous double murderer (famous not because of the murders themselves but for receiving - indeed, asking to receive - the death penalty), and since Gaylen's career as a drunk ended in his death from stab wounds, and since Frank turned into a sad recluse, Mikal could be forgiven for taking comfort from this sense of exclusion. Compared to theirs, his own life, as a journalist for Rolling Stone, has been a success. But Shot in the Heart isn't a comfortable or self-consoling book. Bereaved, browbeaten and obsessive, Gilmore tries to understand the genesis of his disturbed family. More painfully, he tries to locate the precise moment at which Gary went irrevocably wrong.

The search takes Gilmore a long way back, to 600 BC and the birth of the Mormon religion. Tracing bloodlines, he recalls his mother's tales of being forced to watch an execution in Utah as a child; she couldn't have, his researches tell him, but the fact she even thought she did seems to fit with the kind of woman she was - morbid, superstitious, ghost-tormented. Escaping her strict Mormon background, Bessie met an older man, an ad salesman called Frank Gilmore. That, at least, was the name he gave her, though in the past there had been other names and, she soon discovered, other wives and children too. Rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Harry Houdini, Frank specialised in abrupt disappearances, in order that his bad cheques and business scams could escape detection. It was during one such identity crisis that Frank and Bessie's second son was born, called Faye Robert Coffmann on the birth certificate but later re-christened Gary (after Gary Cooper) Gilmore.

Crime and drink kept Frank on the move from state to state. The nomadic life wasn't easy with four young sons, and eventually the family settled in Portland, Oregon. 'Settled' isn't quite the word. While Frank doted on young Mikal, his other sons endured a reign of terror: razor straps, belts or bare fists from Dad, while Mom, taking a breather from arguing and being battered herself, looked indifferently on. Gary later said that he learnt to hate all authority because of these beatings, and that 'my father was the first person I ever wanted to murder'.

Instead, he followed in his father's footsteps: robbery, drink, cavalier treatment of women, increasingly violent assault. By 15 he was in reform school. At 16, after half-accidentally shooting his best friend in the stomach, he graduated to grown-up jail. Between then and the cataclysm 20 years later - when, while on parole, he murdered two young Mormon men on consecutive nights - Gary Gilmore spent barely three years outside prison. Hellbent against further imprisonment, he resisted his family's attempts to have his sentence commuted. He was not afraid of dying ('he was death,' says Mikal, a touch existentially, 'wanting itself as its only possible fulfilment'). He intended to pay the price of Blood Atonement. He looked on the firing squad as the angel of release.

His story has been told before, through newspapers, in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, and on film. But here it is told from the inside, by the brother who, as a teenager, had already learnt that 'Hell was my family. It was having to live with people who did the worst things to people they should love the most.'

What makes the book compelling is its element of personal quest. For much of the book, Mikal Gilmore keeps himself in the shadows, but in the last part he and the story move forward. He tells us what being Gary Gilmore's brother means to him, and why he hasn't had children, and how it is 'to feel as if there is something in you that should not continue on the face of this earth, something about yourself that should not survive your own life'. He talks to Gary's last girlfriend; he holds the clothes that Gary died in; he discovers that Gary has a grown-up son. Finally, and most touchingly, he tracks down his one surviving brother, Frank, and discloses to him a last family secret: Frank's real father was his half-brother, Robert, which means his so-called father, Frank Snr, was actually his grandfather.

It sounds like one of those impenetrable genealogical riddles. And some aspects of this book - its surfeit of dreams, its weakness for ghosts and theories of 'fate', its garrulity - merely add to its air of baffled pain. But there is no mystery to the question that Shot in the Heart sets itself. Gary Gilmore turned out as he did because he was brought up on a diet of cruelty, violence and rancour. It is an old story - the sins of the fathers, the omissions of the mothers - but Mikal Gilmore tells it grippingly, with a candour and selfknowledge it cannot have been easy to achieve.

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