Its Friday.There were a lot of topics this week I could have written about, but others have already expressed their feelings on the events of these last few days with more eloquence than I could.
I had no idea what to write. Until I remembered that Friday is always Forgotten Books day.
And for today, Forgotten reviews day, as well, I suppose.
This review was written a few years back for a planned re-release of Stone City by David Thompson's Busted Flush Press that sadly never got off the ground as far as I was aware. But if you can track down a copy of the book, I promise that you won’t be disappointed.
By Mitchell Smith
Stone City is a dark, violent trip into a world that runs parallel to our own. A stone city where the worst of our citizens find themselves, segregated from society and forced to create their own rules and norms within the regulated world of the State Prison.
Stone City is a massive novel. Its labyrinth plot – as a college professor jailed for a hit-and-run hunts down a killer within the prison system – snakes through the twilight world of the State Prison, giving us glimpses of a place that seems far removed from the everyday reality we understand. While, in more recent years, television shows like HBO’s Oz have given us an understanding of life on the inside, the world of Stone City still feels sufficiently alien to unnerve even the most hardened reader. Inside the walls, an entire world is formed that runs parallel to the one outside. The prisoners create their own social norms, their own bizarre parodies of normal life. The prison “marriages” and the apparent division of prisoners by sex (whereby weaker, more feminine men are taken as wives in some quite willing and occasionally tender partnerships). The property market for primo space in prison. Separate blocks feel more like individual countries than extensions of the same building. This creates a self contained world with its own intricate systems of trade, barter and morality. At first glance, much of these adapted norms seem a mockery of the outside world. The reader soon comes to realise, however, that the inmates need to maintain this pretend society to survive. The only world they now know is inside, and they need to live there with each other.
In this place, new social contracts are drawn. Families – however dysfunctional – are formed among men who have never known such things before, and friendships, however tenuous, are forged through shared fears and insecurities. But everything is fragile in this world, subject to violent change at the will of any man.
Much of this is experienced through the eyes of Bauman, a college professor who finds himself sent to State after accidentally killing a girl. At least, that’s his story. Bauman survives not simply by adapting to this new world, but by trading on his own skills. Some of the best scenes in this novel are simple, brilliant scenes where Bauman attempts to help his fellow inmates somehow better themselves. Teaching illiterate bruisers to read, finding a way to recreate his old life in this twisted world in which he has been thrown.
The book relies on taking the familiar elements of the everyday world and throwing them askew. At its most basic level, the question of the sexes is dealt with by prisoners designating themselves accordingly. When Bauman starts to hang around with a fellow con by the name of Cousins, this relationship is taken in a romantic light by his fellow prisoners. After all, Cousins, with his delicate features and quiet manner, is a woman in this world, and he is so taken by the role that he dreams of becoming one for real upon his release.
Then, there is the matter of everyday living: cells are bought and traded like property. Men set themselves up in business. Different blocks become other countries within this world, each with their own set of rules and regulations. Nowhere is this more obvious than in segregation, where life is so removed from Bauman’s block that there may as well be oceans between these two places.
In contrasting Bauman’s life outside with his life inside, we see parallels and patterns that reflect the prison and the real world against each other, casting the events of the novel and the characters trapped within State, in an often unexpected light. We are forced to question: where was Bauman better off? Which life really was his personal hell? As the novel progresses and we learn more about what it was that sent Bauman to State, we begin to realise that the most seemingly civilised man in State may in fact be far from it, that civilised is dependent on a man’s situation and surroundings and that even on the outside, Bauman’s civility may have been little more than social veneer.
All of which is intriguing stuff, but apropos of nothing without the novelist’s skill to back it up. And Mitchell Smith is, thankfully, a brilliant writer. His carefully crafted prison world combined with his deeply detailed psychological portrait of a man from the outside finding himself on the inside is one hell of a read: darkly gripping, and with a final scene that is as shocking and unexpected as it is almost inevitable.
For some, the text may be a little overlong, the narrative taking many sideroads – not all of them as productive as could be expected – and occasionally guilty of repeating its most salient points when they are already made. But ultimately, the power of Mitchell’s words and the intricacy of the world and people he has created are what pull you in. You can feel the prison walls closing in, breathe the air heavy with the stink of fellow prisoners, and hear the cacophony of sounds that make up daily prison life. It is terrifyingly easy to become absorbed in this world that Mitchell has created.
Stone City is a dark trip into a world where violence lurks behind every word, where any action can be misinterpreted and where life is cheap. But it comes so close to our own world, that sometimes, when you re-emerge from the pages, you have to wonder whether you can’t hear a guard somewhere crying, “Fingers!” as the gates roll across cells packed tightly together in this manufactured hell where the guilty ultimately punish themselves.