“History of an Executioner” by Clancy McGilligan

Reviewed by Andrew Farkas

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117 pp Miami University Press

Although the setting of Clancy McGilligan’s novella, History of an Executioner, is vaguely medieval, I equate it more to the settings we see in works like J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Gaétan Soucy’s The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (1998), Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” (1919), and just about anything written by Samuel Beckett. Sure, it feels old. The executioner from the title uses an axe, the foodstuffs are very simple (I’m pretty sure our title character goes months at a time only eating bread), and everyone looks rather like the miserable peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Only we’re not in, say, England of the fifth or sixth century. I think I’ll call this time/place Neverville. But McGilligan, similar to Coetzee’s “the Empire,” calls it the Republic.  

Characters without names feel right at home in Neverville. There’s the executioner (our narrator), the jailer, the doctor, the rebels, the prisoner, the town manager, etc. Granted, if your name is your job description, at least you’re guaranteed to have something to do. The jailer jails, the town manager manages the town, the rebels rebel (against whatever you’ve got), the executioner executes (and he’s damned good at it, seeing as how it’s never taken him more than one swing of the axe to shear off a head). 

Here’s where the problem comes in, though: after another successful day at the office, the executioner heads home, spends the evening with Mrs. the executioner, comes back to work, and learns that executions have been indefinitely suspended. Why? Because way off in the capital there was an uproar over a sloppy decapitation: “They needed ten blows to separate a stubborn head.” Now, if Andrew Farkas loses his job, he’s still Andrew Farkas. But if you’re the executioner, who are you when there are no more executions?

Slipping into a grade A identity crisis, the executioner gets some good news: whereas executions have been suspended, paychecks for executioners have not. So, with this coin burning a hole in his pocket, what’s an axeman with a lot of extra time on his hands to do? There’s always the bar. As it turns out, the jailer thinks he and our narrator should try to make a serious dent in the Republic’s wine supply. Of course, a drunken pub crawl could ensue, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but the executioner comes to realize that the jailer wants him to pay for the entire tab, and when he doesn’t that’s pretty much the end of that. 

Then again, there’s Mrs. the executioner (who has an actual name: Lena) back at home. The problem is Lena suffered an ill-defined malady (called “the fall,” but maybe it’s a stroke) before the novella began, so she spends her days sitting in a chair, occasionally repeating the three words she remembers (“always,” “Lena,” “no”), and staring out the window until it’s time, once again, to move back to the bed. 

There’s the friendly neighborhood brothel, too. For a while, the executioner enjoys himself with one prostitute in particular named Emmer. After making it rain too many times, though, our narrator wonders how he’s going to feed his wife and himself. And when he learns that his relationship with Emmer will remain a professional arrangement, he comes to understand he shouldn’t let himself get too caught up in these things.

 How about another job? The executioner tries to become the herb salesman (Herb?), but this is where we really learn, if it hasn’t been apparent from the beginning, that people in the town really don’t like him. Not because he’s a jerk (that’s the jailer), not because he rambles on incessantly (that’s the town manager), but because he’s the executioner. Add in the fact that kids tend to throw rocks at him and adults hiss or stare daggers at him, and it’s no wonder our narrator ends up spending a good deal of time in bed, occasionally reading from a book called Histories of the New World (as before, I don’t think that “New World” is America).

While the once and perhaps future axeman slides deeper into depression, for a moment, let’s think back to his good old days (such as they were), when he was lopping heads off on the youzh. Who was he killing? The rebels. But who are the rebels? In Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, although everyone is nervous about them, the barbarians never attack. Sure, the fascistic colonel rustles up some sad, pathetic types who he calls “the barbarians,” and parades them through the center of town to show how great (?) and how powerful (*eye roll*) the Empire is. But in History of an Executioner, the rebels really do attack. And sure, before, when men were men (and so on and so forth), the executioner probably would’ve told Mrs. the executioner he was going to be putting in some long hours at the office, on account of the recent deluge of work. Only now, after his identity crisis, after having trouble thinking of himself as “the executioner,” after coming to the conclusion he didn’t really like his job, he just did what he was told, well now he’s able to look at the rebels. And he’s able to look at himself. What does he see? More importantly, what does he, finally, choose to do?

I’ve heard History of an Executioner called “existential.” I would argue that it brings us to the verge of existentialism, the point where the protagonist must decide for himself at last, realizing that he actually does have a choice. Setting this novel in Neverville heightens that effect. The fact that a character called “the executioner” isn’t really an executioner for most of the book, which sets him frantically adrift, desperately hoping for a new groove (or an old one) that he can jack into and mindlessly glide along in, even though no such groove exists for him anymore, while creating the same feeling in the reader by stripping away many of the guideposts we’re used to (character names, recognizable settings, identifiable time periods), well, if there were more books like this, I’d be a happy reviewer. As is, I plan on drinking with the jailer. Don’t worry, I’ll stick him with the tab. 

AndrewFarkasAndrew Farkas is the author of The Big Red Herring, Sunsphere, and Self-Titled Debut, fiction editor at The Rupture (formerly The Collagist), and an assistant professor of English at Washburn University.