AT ONE POINT, about 10 years ago, Norman Mailer was writing what I thought was the most powerful journalism around, so well-rendered that it approached the level of art. With his artist's eye and his luxuriant, precise prose, Mailer swept over the great and absurd events and -- to hell with the rules -- forced his own interesting ego into the middle of things. From that egocentric ground, aided by his confidence in his imagination, Mailer portrayed the '60s truly and deeply, in a way that mere journalism can never pretend to match.

Mailer's journalism approached art -- notwithstanding the many churlish critics -- because he had the nerve to keep himself in the center of the story, an audicious but honest aproach which many other writers have imitated unsuccessfully.

In The Executioner's Song , a tale of the life and death of Gary Gilmore, who was executed in Utah nearly three years ago, Mailer retreats to mere journalism. His ego and his eye are not in the narrative at all. His fevered self-analysis is missing. The prose is deliberately flat and blunt-edged, not the marvelous, descriptive blade of the younger Mailer. He obviously feels that there is an effect to be gained by using, himself, the crude, chatty language of his characters, but it wears thin very quickly.

The material pours forth: interviews, court transcripts, news clippings, more interviews -- ad tedium. There is all the authenticity of Dreiser, but seamier, and duller. The narrative is stitched together to follow the available material, the way a good rewrite man on a newspaper city desk makes a story flow from whatever the street reporters have managed to pick up. Mailer is playing rewrite man with this book and, of course, he does so expertly. What he needed was a tough city editor.

A question that arises during the tedious passages in The Executioner's Song is whether Gary Gilmore knows and cares -- whether he is indeed alive in some unknown form and able to appreciate the continued celebration of his short, violent life and his well-publicized death by firing squad.

If it sounds as if I am mocking the dead, I do not intend to. Gilmore's suicidal desire to be executed grew out of his hope for a satisfying reincarnation. In this very long recounting of that drama, the possibility of reincarnation is Gilmore's only detectable chance of redemption. Without this dream of a nether-world destiny, protecting and beckoning him, Gilmore's life is reduced to brief, squalid chapters of chaos and grief.

I don't believe in reincarnation, though I did as a child. I expect that most children do, at one point or another, as they try to imagine an acceptable logic behind the random cruelties of life and death. Gilmore was, as I read his story, an unfinished child, a pathetic man permanently stunted by a violent impulse of adolescence. Sex and defiance and half-baked dreams of grandeur guided his behavior in jerky movements toward a pop-tragic ending.

This thousand-page book surely intends to convice us of something more, but Norman Mailer fails, awkwardly losing control of the material, and finally losing hold of the elemental questions themselves. It is possible that my personal disgust at Gilmore's brief celbrity as willing victim of capital punishment spills over my judgement of Mailer's "true life novel." As a reporter, I covered that sideshow in Utah. I thought the spectacle was sick, as was the public's titillation and the mass media's exploitation. I do not beleive that Mailer, despite his obviously honest intentions, has managed to overcome the burden of this sickness.

Gary Gilmore was 35 years old in April 1976, when he was released from prison; he had spent nearly all of his years from the age of 14 behind bars. He went to live with an aunt and her husband in Provo, Utah. A month later, Gilmore met Nicole Baker, his "elf" and soul mate, who lived with him for two months of feverish and frustrating sexual catching up. By July, the romance turned ugly and, when Nicole broke away from him, Gilmore committed two routine hold-ups in which he casually murdered a gas-station attendant and a motel owner. After a short trial, he was sentenced to be executed.

His story was utterly routine until he announced that, instead of the scrupulous legal appeals which keep death-row convicts alive for years, even for decades, Gilmore wished to die immediately. When he feared that his deathrow would be postponed by legal interventions, he twice attempted suicide (assisted once by his beloved Nicole, who smuggled a lethal quantity of drugs into prison by concealing pills in a balloon up her vagina; he then transferred the pills to his rectum).

The state of Utah fulfilled Gilmore's death wish by executing him on January 17, 1977, barely nine months after his release from prison. It does not take a thousand pages and 300 interviews to perceive that the old prison cliche -- he couldn't handle it on the outside -- is as sound as any perception of Gilmore. He couldn't.

This is sad and obvious and clearly puts Gilmore on a plane beyond blame, but Mailer seems convinced that the seamy, lascivious details of Gary and Nicole's romance and the occasioonal whiffs of adolescent poetry from the ex-convict will make one feel something deeper. Are these star-crossed lovers a "kind of democratic Romeo and Juliet," as one participant suggests? Or is Gilmore carrying the devil on his back? Or does he go to death like a devil-in-Christ? These exalted interpretations of the Gilmore story, suggestively strewn along the way, do not seem as ridiculous in context as they sound here. Nor do they seem exalted.

In the vernacular which Mailer has adopted for his narrative, Nicole screws a lot, even while Gary is in prison. She sleeps with nearly any man who is willing, especially one who seems like a loser. Gilmore, a loser locked up for nearly 20 years, with only his homosexual experiences and his girlie fantasies, has his own sexual troubles. He prefers childlike girls, including an adolescent cousin, and possibly young boys, too. Nicole shaves off her pubic hair to conform with Gary's fantasy of restored childhood, but his sex remains troubled. He writes long, dirty letters to her from prison in which the sex is blissful and unending, a prisoner's dream of perfectible copulation.

However much one might sympathize, these two are not, I assure you, Romeo and Juliet.

How could a writer as great as Norman Mailer write The Executioner's Song ? I can only guess that Mailer's eye and imagination are missing from this book because Mailer himself was not on the scene as a reporter until several months after Gilmore's death. He signed a contract with Lawrence Schiller, the enterprising producer-journalist who became Gilmore's agent for immortality, and built much of the book on Schiller's exhaustive interviews with the deceased. Mailer has suggested that his relationship with Schiller was comparable to that of a film producer and his director -- he assembled the material that Schiller had bought the rights to and then gathered.

Mailer did follow up with interviews of his own with people as diverse as Nicole Baker and a prison warden, and even with Schiller himself. But it is the producer-director relationship that helps explain why this book does not seem like a novel. After Schiller enters the book on page 594, his entrepreneurial skills, as much as Gilmore's fate, are meant to engage the reader. Schiller simultaneously cooks up media deals and attempts to extract the true story from the condemned man. He succeeded brilliantly at the first -- as we know -- but he was embarrassingly inadequate at the second. If Mailer had been there, asking the questions, the results might have been dramatically different.

One brief example makes the point:

"'My impression, Gary, based on talking to others in your family, and based on listening to your voice on these tapes -- is that you may have been treated rather cruelly when you were a small child. There are people in the family who say that efforts were made by your grandparents to assume custody of you. That you came at an awkward moment in your mother's life and that she seemed to resent you, when you were small. Is there any truth to any of this?'

"'Not that I know of, Larry,' Gilmore replied."

Most of it is like that: Schiller asks earnestly clumsy questions and Gilmore snickers. Gilmore spent half his life evading earnest questions from counselors, psychiatrists and parole officers, so it's not surprising that he has the upper hand with his interviewers.

As a result, Mailer becomes a prisoner -- not a prisoner of sex this time -- of his contract, of his inherited material. He cannot roam imaginatively from that material without forfeiting some of the commercial value in the "authentic" Gilmore tapes. Yet, by sticking faithfully to conventional reportage, Mailer cannot address the deeper questions which only artists know how to answer.

Finally, there is the inevitable and devastating comparison to be made with Mailer's celebrity rival, Truman Capote, who wrote his own factual novel about murder and capital punishment, In Cold Blood . I cannot remember the name of that family in western Kansas or even the two young killers who chose the family as victims. But, 15 years later, I can still recall the innocent aura of that isolated farmhouse and the random dread of the approaching killers. Capote wrought a literary miracle of sorts -- melding his story-telling genius with the raw and ugly material of life itself -- so compelling that a reader did not bother to ask where journalism left off and art began.

Capote's book was true, factually, but we remember it because it was true artistically. Mailer's defenders might object that Mailer was working with different material. It is true; he certainly was.