Book Review: Notes on an Execution

My copy of the book.

I don’t think you can ever see the whole of another person. Danya Kukafka in her 2021 novel, Notes on an Execution, encapsulates that notion in exquisite fashion — the best we can hope for, perhaps, are beautiful, and also horrifying, bursts of the microcosm of someone. More still, violence is infinite in its entanglements (so are beauty and love and all things good, to be fair), and Kukafka untangles it in such a heartbreaking, authentic way with her female characters, women all affected by the crimes of an “average man.” In point of fact, Kukafka, in an blurb at the end of the novel, explains her motivation for writing the book: To understand why it is that American culture is so fascinated by “average man” only when they hurt women. This is a book about and for those women who were hurt and for those who survived.

The novel is not about Ansel Packer, even though we are counting down the hours until his execution, including a faux-escape attempt, where Ansel thought he had one last bit of charm left in him to get a correctional officer to do his bidding (she didn’t; a nice bit of unspoken rebellion), and even though we do, through the eyes of others, learn about his crimes, his upbringing, and his adulthood. No, the novel is about Lavender, his mother, and Hazel, the sister to Packer’s ex-wife, and Saffy, the female detective determined to bring Packer to justice.

Lavender, who was forged in the crucible of an “average man” who became interesting only by hurting her, and then left him, and her two children in the wake. She joined a commune of women on the West Coast where women look out for each other. Choices, choices are microcosms of their own forming the microcosms that form our whole being and the path we lead in life. If Lavender never leaves and never forgets to leave the “trinket” of a locket with Packer, does he become the villain in Hazel and Saffy’s story? But what of Lavender’s life then?

Hazel, not just the sister of Packer’s wife, Jenny, but her twin. Her jealous and bitter twin. Bitter that her parents seem to dote on her “better half” more. Jealous, even, of Packer at first. Hazel makes choices that lead her to a more conventional life, as it turns out, whereas Jenny falls into alcoholism and a dead-end marriage with a psychopath who can’t feel. After Jenny leaves Packer, she calls Hazel out on her triumphalism, if you will, and the worst part about the feelings we feel, even when they aren’t pleasant, is that we are fully cognizant of them and yet. That is, Hazel does feel some since of pride or as Jenny argues, is “content,” that Hazel is where she is and Jenny is where she is. To which, Kukafka gives us this unforgettable description, “Hazel felt like a human swamp, stewing in her own vulgarity.” But, in juxtaposition to Packer, isn’t it better to stew in your own vulgarity than to feel nothing at all, at least?

Jenny made the one choice that is perhaps the most dangerous choice a woman can ever make: to leave a man. That’s the point where women are most in danger of domestic violence by men, fatally so. And it is Hazel who remarks how damn frustrating it is that the public and media only found Packer interesting once he was connected to three girls (stylized Girl or Girls throughout the novel) who were killed in 1990 rather than merely by Jenny’s rather routine by comparison death. In other words, women are killed in domestic violence situations all of the time, but a string of murders, now that makes the average man interesting and worthy of examination.

And Saffy, who came from the same background as Packer, growing up in the same foster home, both never quite knowing their parents (and in Saffy’s case, even more so since her dad moved to India after her birth; she spends the rest of the novel chasing that side of her “wholeness”), and knew of Packer’s psychopathy then, when he was brutally killing squirrels and foxes. Saffy made choices that led her to Travis, a drug addict, and lots of cocaine until one of the Girls who went missing and died was another girl from foster care, and that then led her to being a detective with the New York State Police Department. And finally, all the way back around to Packer. To where, Saffy is, for lack of a better word, stalking Packer’s every move for years. Which is juxtaposed to Lavender who still hasn’t seen him since escaping the farm in the 1970s. Saffy then makes the choice to intervene when Packer appears to be getting closer to Blue, the daughter of Packer’s younger brother, a brother who made something good of himself and then died of cancer. Because life is random and chaotic and doesn’t abide by neat lines of “good person” vs. “bad person,” or more pointedly, the “good brother” and the “bad brother.” Even though it isn’t her fault, Saffy traces that choice to intervene and warn Blue (and her mother, Rachel) to Packer going off the precipice to tracking Jenny down in Texas and killing her in a home invasion.

Packer, who like other “interesting” serial killers, took trinkets or mementos to remember his Girls by — his kills by — and it was all a compensatory way of filling the hole left by his mother, who forget to leave him her trinket, if you want to psychoanalyze Packer. The reason Saffy was solidified in her gut feeling that Packer killed the three Girls is because he gave one of those trinkets to Jenny and Saffy noticed it when she interviewed Jenny.

Both Packer and Saffy, it must be said, are trying to feel something. Packer kills to see if he will feel, starting with the squirrel and fox. At one point, he escalates to leaving the dead fox in Saffy’s bed, both I think to taunt her and to see if he’ll feel something from that; Saffy never tells anyone about this and Kukafka gives us a beautiful line, “The incident lived insider her, a private bubble of shame that she poked on her worst days, just to see if it had changed shape. It never did.” Who can’t relate to that image of poking are deepest shames? I know I can. After the animals, Packer moves on to the Girls, and finally, the ultimate Girl, Jenny, and still, he feels nothing, not until the moment the needle goes into his arm and for a moment, the darkness lifts from his body and he feels what it would be like to have taken one of those infinite other paths in a universe where Ansel Packer wasn’t a serial killer. And Saffy, well, she chased the thrill to feel first through cocaine and then in trying to solve cases, but when they were solved, when “justice” was seemingly obtained, even the most final of “justices” in the execution of Packer, it still didn’t feel like a victory of a kind, the right kind of feeling.

So, what are we to do with these entanglements wrought by violence? One thing we can’t do, Kukafka argues eloquently, is to pity. After all, she says, “Pity is destruction wearing a mask of sympathy.” You can’t pity where Jenny ended up in her life before her death, or even pity the three Girls who never got to be women and live full lives. Yes, Kukafka wonders what their lives might have been like, had they gotten to live, but that’s not pity, that’s something else. It’s not seeking destruction but creation, or yearning for that other universe where they are still alive. That’s dabbling in the infinite “ifs” of life. Longing, perhaps, is another word for it.

I loved Kukafka’s inversion of the serial killer tale, where instead of focusing on the killer, we focus on the victims, and not just the victims, but the survivors of the killer beyond the violence itself, because violence ripples and entangles and ensnares so many lives. And that’s interesting, and a story worth telling. Kukafka tells her story beautifully, with such lovely prose, but also searing at times in its insightfulness. I also just really liked the Saffy character and would read 10 more detective novels featuring the Saffy character.

This book will not so much make you think differently about serial killers — after all, I don’t think Kukafka was trying to make a case for some deep nuance when it came to judging serial killers’ actions; she largely derides Packer’s faux-philosophical ruminations on the subject he calls the Theory — but it will make you think differently about our orientation toward serial killers rather than toward their victims and survivors.

In my previous review, I said that book was among my two favorite this year. Well, slot this one right in there, too.

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