In dreams Mikal Gilmore has killed himself more than once, pulled the trigger and felt the back of his head explode. He has dreamed, too, of executing a brother born to be a victim and of standing by helplessly as another brother's child dies alongside her murdering father. And then there are the nights when sleep has found him trapped by a faceless, suffocating evil or haunted by a ghost that refuses to allow him even an uneasy peace. To those of us who are neither the brother of a killer nor the spawn of unparalleled dysfunction, these dreams would qualify as nightmares. To Mikal Gilmore, however, the only nightmare is his life.
And yet, by the standards of his family, he has gotten off easy. He is the only one of four brothers to escape regular beatings by his father, the only one who never saw the old man pound his mother's face lopsided or had his hopes ravaged by the madness that is his heritage. He is the last born, the favorite son. All he must do is survey the wreckage around him and wonder what evil courses through his own veins.
So Gilmore comes to us with "Shot in the Heart," a family pathology that is as painful to read as it is impossible to put down. This is the book he seemingly had to write or go out of his mind. "Maybe if I could discover some answers," he says early on, "I might be able to bargain my way out of any further loss." But surely he began his search knowing those bargains are hard to come by.
His brother Gary is the Gilmore America remembers--the slayer of two men and the willing target of a Utah firing squad 17 years ago, captured in print by Norman Mailer, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in a TV movie, held up for inspection by the punk rock band that wondered how the world looked through his eyes. The other two Gilmore boys remain as anonymous as Gary was infamous. Gaylen was a poet, a drunk and a petty crook who died a painful death most likely because he bedded one too many of his best friends' wives. Frank Jr. inherited his father's name, but his spirit was crushed at every succeeding turn by the very people who brought him into this world and left him fit for nothing better than day labor and flophouse beds.
Gary, Gaylen and Frank Jr. turned out the only way they could after being raised by parents who somehow managed to inflict more physical and psychological abuse on their children than they did on each other. Even Mikal, whom they both cherished, could not escape the evil that came to them as naturally as breathing. His mother tried to smother him with a pillow when he was an infant, and his father damn near consigned him to a lifetime of hatred by pitting the kid against his brothers one harrowing Christmas. "What sad and wretched people Frank Gilmore and Bessie Brown were," Mikal writes. "I love them, but I have to say: It is heart-rending they ever had children at all."
Gilmore's years of shame and denial have given way to a triumph both personal and literary. He has accomplished something even his most ardent admirers might not have suspected he was capable of when he wrote about rock 'n roll for Rolling Stone, L.A. Weekly and the dear departed Herald Examiner. It is one thing, after all, to explain the Sex Pistols' rage against society or to spread the word about Lucinda Williams' achingly beautiful song lyrics. It is quite another to deliver a book that can rightfully be placed alongside the best of this generation's harrowing family memoirs, Geoffrey Wolff's "The Duke of Deception," Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life" and William Kittredge's "Hole in the Sky."
Those works evoke a bleak and unforgiving country, but one that still seems almost benign compared to the hardscrabble West in "Shot in the Heart." It is frocked with trailer parks and seedy boardinghouses, tawdry violence and reform school horrors, boozy abandonments and half-brothers who come from out of nowhere--all with a soundtrack by Elvis Presley and Fats Domino. So maybe readers shouldn't be surprised when Gilmore says Gary's paintings reminded him of Edward Hopper's. Whether they were in Portland, Seattle or Salt Lake City, the brothers grew up in an Edward Hopper world.
There was no other world in which their father could have functioned. Frank Gilmore had a psychic for a mother, and he liked to think that Houdini was his father. After working as a tightrope-walking circus clown named Laffo, he became a silent movie stuntman and a con artist who sold advertising for magazines that didn't exist. Oh yes, and he knew what the bottom of a bottle looked like.
Hardly the profile you would expect for the future husband of a Mormon beauty from Provo, Utah, but then Bessie Brown always had a rebellious streak. She hated the farm she grew up on and the beatings she saw her father give her mother with his wooden leg. Bessie got beaten, too, never harder than when she discovered boys. But Frank Gilmore was no boy when she met him in Salt Lake. He was in his late 40s, almost twice her age and only four years younger than her father. He was a handsome rascal, though, and Bessie was enough of a free spirit not to mind that he was freshly divorced when he asked her to join him on a trip to Sacramento to visit his mother. They could even get married there--if Bessie didn't object to such a casual proposal.
She should have, because after they were wed by Frank's mother, who just happened to be a minister, in a ceremony apparently conducted without benefit of a license, she started to realize her husband was a stranger. Mother Gilmore told her that Frank had been married six or seven times before, that he had even more aliases than ex-wives, and that he had sprinkled the countryside with God knows how many children.
What Bessie confronted in the years that followed was far worse. There was Frank's penchant for violence, and there was his vile tongue, which may have left more scars on Bessie and the boys than anything he did with razor straps, belts and his fists. Frank wasn't much for sticking around, either, whether he was abandoning Bessie and an infant son at a gas station in the middle of nowhere or running from the mysterious stranger who kept reappearing to remind him of bygone sins. Mikal was never able to determine what those sins were no matter how deeply he dug into his family's past, but one finishes "Shot in the Heart" wondering if Gary wasn't the only murderer in the family.
Nothing could make Bessie leave, though. "Where would I have gone?" Mikal heard her asking Larry Schiller in the interviews that provided the backbone for Mailer's "The Executioner's Song." It is as if she began to sense her doom the day she saw her favorite sister die in a sledding accident. But Bessie had been haunted by the specter of violence and loss since she learned of Blood Atonement, the Mormon code of life-for-a-life retribution. And she passed her foreboding on to her sons by telling them about the hanging her father had forced her to watch when she was a child. Her story was a lie, as Mikal discovered in his research, but it still resonated through the lives she was helping to shape. So it is that Mikal writes, "I grew up in a family where the noose worked as a talisman; it hung over our heads not so much as a deterrent but as a sign of destiny."
The madness of Gilmore's parents permeates "Shot in the Heart" with the same ferocity that it warped him and his brothers. Once you understand that, you understand why Gary threw darts at his kid brother the only time Mikal can remember them playing together. And why Gary spent all but 2 1/2 of his last 22 years on earth doing time. And why he despised Mikal's attempts to stop the firing squad from doing its ugly job. Indeed, when he was arrested for murdering those two young Mormon men in Provo, Gary was on his way back home to Portland to kill Mikal because he thought the baby of the family had escaped the curse of being a Gilmore.
But Mikal had not, and never will. For he will always hear Gary on Death Row asking him, "Where were you 10 years ago when I needed you?" Likewise, he will always remember the day his father dragged him off to live in a Seattle fleabag and how Gaylen, displaced by Mikal as the favorite son, warned him, "Someday he'll hate you, too." Cancer killed the old man before that could happen, but he left his mark on Mikal anyway, left him with a chilling capacity to walk away from anyone, be it lover, brother or mother.
It is what Mikal hates most about the hand his family dealt him. Unfortunately, his response in "Shot in the Heart" is too often self-pity. Not that he hasn't earned the right to a healthy dose of it, but excess is excess, and he seems to sense it even if he can't bring himself to admit it. He knows that, for all the courage it took to wrestle with his family's demons, he is still no hero.
If any of the Gilmores fits that description, it is Mikal's oldest brother, Frank Jr., who suffered so much so regularly that he might well have become a killer himself. It isn't just that his father beat him, it is that he also stepped forward to take beatings that Gary deserved. But there was never any reward for Frank Jr. The old man belittled the magic tricks he loved doing, his mother called the girl who might have become his wife a whore, and he never took up the carpenter's trade for fear it would somehow be taken away from him. And yet he was the only one of the brothers who stayed by his mother's side as she lay dying, the only one who always tried to do the right thing.
Frank Jr. disappeared once Bessie was in her grave, and Mikal didn't see him for the next 10 years. When they were finally reunited, Mikal found a shy, withdrawn man who had endured homelessness, drinking problems and street violence. But the essential goodness of old remained. No matter how painful the past was to him, Frank Jr. helped his kid brother peel away its layers and comprehend its cruel mysteries. In doing so, he proved that even when there is no escape, there can be nobility. Mikal thanked him the only way he could. He dedicated his book to Frank Gilmore Jr.
BOOKMARK: For an excerpt from "Shot in the Heart," see the Opinion section.