THE LAST FACE YOU'LL EVER SEE: The Private Life of the Death Penalty

Ivan Solotaroff, Author . HarperCollins $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-017448-4

This look at America's executioners and their victims is a combination of cinema vérité (think of Errol Morris's disturbing, and similarly disappointing, documentary, Mr. Death) and morbid fascination: "I wanted to know who carried out executions," and more specifically why they do it. Thus immersed in this "peculiar institution" for the last six years, Solotaroff (No Success Like Failure) brings readers on a discomfiting tour of the Death Belt, the statistical concentration of death-penalty states from Texas to Florida. Depicting ironically pleasant last meals with retarded convicts, the creepy antics of the death-house guards, and threats of possible innocents sent to their doom, Solotaroff specifically seeks not to illuminate the ongoing moral dialogue, but rather to examine the living complexities of executioners and the condemned, a relationship he oddly reveres as a kind of marriage—although the metaphor is eventually abandoned in light of a cruel and imperfect bureaucracy. Readers visit death rows, hang out with executioners and meet the condemned, but the people along the way are alienated and alienating, and readers must remind themselves they are human beings. More problematic is that Solotaroff dodges the moral quagmire (claiming he embarked on this project out of "curiosity"), leaving the ethical responsibilities of his writing in a decidedly gray place. This is a well-written and readable book but an inadequate consideration of an important and timely subject. (Sept.)

Forecast:Interest in the death penalty has increased in the wake of Timothy McVeigh's execution, and will be in the spotlight when Legal Lynching by Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jesse Jackson Jr. comes out in October, so sales of this might be buoyed by that book's wake.

Reviewed on: 07/30/2001
Release date: 09/01/2001
Ebook - 256 pages - 978-0-06-204153-1
Paperback - 256 pages - 978-0-06-093103-2
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