History of an Executioner
by Clancy McGilligan
Miami University Press, 2020
117 pages, $20.00
Reviewed by Jeff Gilliland
A “new sickness” arrives from the outside world, from which only “the very strong recover.” The self-serving, incompetent government cancels certain public gatherings, while in a remote town rebels take to the streets in defense of their personal freedoms. A government employee finds himself suddenly furloughed, left with nothing to do but take long walks, read, and dream of the next time he’ll get to see the woman he loves. In the town, people keep their distance and try not to touch him, lest his particles intermingle with theirs.
Sounds familiar? More like oddly prescient medieval dystopia. History of an Executioner (Miami University Press, 2020), a new novella by Clancy McGilligan, has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it renders a sensitive, touching portrait of life in limbo that resonates powerfully with those of us sheltering in place from a fraught and threatening world.
Set in a “provincial corner” of an unnamed republic, History of an Executioner follows an executioner whose duties are suspended when an execution goes awry in the capital. As he sits at home fretting over his sick wife, checks daily with local officials to see if and when his job will be reinstated, and picks up extra work to make ends meet, the executioner slowly comes to several life-changing realizations that give a curious insight into our current predicament:
Realization One: We are not defined by what we do, nor by how people see us. In the Republic, the executioner’s job is considered necessary — one might even say “essential” — but distasteful. At one point, he escorts a thirsty prisoner to the gallows and stops off at an old woman’s house to get the man a final drink of water. “I can tell from the way she eyes me that she does not want me to drink,” he says, “that she will probably throw out the cup if I use it.”
This is not fear of disease, but bigoted disdain for a working-class man doing a blue-collar job — and it should call to mind images of entitled people railing against the delivery people and grocery store clerks who put their lives on the line to keep ours running, and who are not responsible for the fact that they are out of toilet paper. Let it be then a reminder to treat these people kindly, to acknowledge their humanity and let them drink from our cups (figuratively, of course).
Realization Two: Life has no hierarchy of value. Late in the novella, the executioner’s wife — nearly brain-dead already from an injury years before — falls ill from the “new sickness.” After pronouncing her odds of survival slim, the doctor says, “Look at it this way … she was not leading a particularly rich life.”
This is a common refrain in the time of COVID-19, which is ravaging elderly and sick populations while leaving younger, healthier people relatively unscathed. “But why should the richness of her life make any difference?” the executioner wonders. “It is still a life.” As our healthcare officials make impossible choices about who gets to live and who has to die — choices that tread far down the paths of ageism and ableism — this simple truth should stay core to all the decisions we make: in the end, a life is still a life.
Realization Three: Que será, será. The executioner’s only book is an aging tome called Histories of the New World. In it, he reads of far-off lands and exotic cultures, which introduce him to new ideas and give him perspective to reflect on his own inherited beliefs. After reading about “a people who rejected any notion of past or future,” he is “struck by the possibility that one can believe only in the present. If there is no past, and no future, then I am completely free.”
This holds true for us as well, we who are so deeply concerned about a future we are powerless to predict, who look to the past for guidance but find ourselves in a situation almost without precedent. As hard as it may be, now is the time to learn to live in the present, to accept and even embrace the unknown. After all, “the future … is not so easy to escape” — it is coming for us one way or another, and perhaps the best we can do now is just be here, together, when it arrives.
People will continue to debate just how the period of coronavirus will be portrayed in books to come — but History of an Executioner feels in many ways like a blank canvas, a simple story onto which we readers can project our frustrations with the world as it is and our uncertainties about the world to come. As we all sit at home pondering our existence, there is no better time to confront these feelings and resolve to take better care of each other when the world reopens, to take our time and take life as it comes. Perhaps in doing so, something will be “forced open inside [us]” as it was inside the executioner, and a new way of being will emerge. We’ll just have to wait and see.