Clancy McGilligan’s 2019 Prize-Winning Novella HISTORY OF AN EXECUTIONER, reviewed by Erica Chamberlain

Clancy McGilligan’s History of an Executioner details the everyday routine and duties of a small town’s executioner. Set in a dystopian society constantly at risk of violent attack from rebel forces, the executioner performs near-daily executions in the town square and is seen in a negative light by the people because of his profession. After word comes from the capital suspending all executions, the executioner is forced to confront the unhappy reality of his life outside of work, and begins to question the relationship between his career and his sense of self. A story of identity crisis, this novella offers valuable commentary on what it means to be an individual in every sense of the word.

Though the plot and language of History of an Executioner remain relatively simple, this novella is engaging because of its mundaneness. The executioner gets up every day and eats the same meals, tends to his sick wife, and visits the same woman at the local brothel. He answers to a town manager who does not respect him. The executioner’s routine and society are recognizable to us for their similarity to the American workforce, despite the dystopian and somewhat regressive setting this novella takes place in. It is only when this routine is disturbed by the death of his wife, a run-in with a gang of boys who assault him, and his growing financial trouble that the executioner begins to rebel against his blind commitment to a career that does not satisfy him. McGilliagan’s decision to use sparse yet elegant prose emulates the minimalism of the executioner’s life, and allows us to instead focus our attention on the recurring theme of job dissatisfaction which points out the “work until you drop” mentality in own our society.

Leaving the executioner nameless throughout the entirety of the novella was another effective choice. Our protagonist, as well as the majority of the other characters in this novella, is solely described in terms of his profession. He is aware of this seemingly inescapable link, and at one point asks himself “Who am I? After considering this question, I come up with one answer: I am what I do.” The executioner feels a sense of pride for his work, and is at a loss when the executions are halted due to their potential inhumaneness. It is only when Emmer, the woman from the brothel that the executioner frequents, accuses him of being too obedient that he seriously begins to question why he feels so loyal to his title. We experience this crisis of self alongside him, and are called to consider our own allegiances to career and superiors—a feat made easier by the nameless ambiguity of History of an Executioner’s protagonist.

Throughout the course of the novella, McGilligan drops many hints that the executioner will leave his career behind in favor of a new life free from the pressures of political leadership, profession, marriage, and even history. The ending, however, is a little less cut and dry than expected. After botching the execution of a young prisoner in front of important political leaders from the capital, the executioner is convinced that he will be fired and therefore able to start over with Emmer. When the town manager tells him that he will keep his job, the executioner does not feel dread; rather, he begins to justify staying, thinking to himself “it will be easier to save money with an executioner’s salary. If I am careful, soon I should have enough to buy passage to the New World.” He then begins laughing uncontrollably at his own plan, and the book concludes with him walking home. In a novella that is otherwise direct, this open ending is refreshing and somewhat terrifying, and forces us to recognize the seduction of routine and familiarity. 

Compact but well-crafted, History of an Executioner tells a big story in a small number of pages, and takes a new approach to the well-loved dystopian genre. McGilligan’s first novella is an imaginative tale of duty and identity which asks us to examine our own lives and careers, and begs us to take agency of our trajectories before it is too late.

History of an Executioner, by Clancy McGilligan. Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Press, January 2020. 117 pages. $20.00, paper.

Erica Chamberlain is a senior at Hamilton College, and is currently working on her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. She has had writing published in Hamilton’s student publication Green Apple, and is hard at work on her first novel.

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