Scott's Note: David James Keaton guest blogs this week. He has a long list of fiction credits to his name, and now he's the co-editor of a brand new story collection, Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz. He and Joe Clifford have put it together, and as the back cover says, you get "19 stories detailing the cold, strange history of The Rock, nightmares real and imagined..." The very strong lineup of writers looks at Alcatraz from a variety of angles: its famous prisoners, its Civil War incarnation, the 1970's Native American occupation of the island, the day-to-day routine of the families who lived there, including the children who grew up playing within earshot of murderers. Great idea for an anthology, and perhaps it should come as no suprise considering David Keaton's longstanding interest in prison narratives. But....let him tell you about that.
by David James Keaton
by David James Keaton
I've seen a lot of prison movies, Cool Hand Luke, Get the Gringo, and Bad Boys probably being my favorites, not because of the stories or directors or actors but because of the unique living, breathing institutions depicted in those films. You get to know every nasty nook and cranny of those joints, sometimes more than the characters. That’s why Oz, for example, still lingers in our memories. And that might be why the newish prison movie Escape Plan with Stallone and Schwarzenegger was kind of a bummer. Because that prison was so interesting, but them, not so much. Stallone was weirdly robotic and Schwarzenegger strangely smiley, not that it matters with Arnold really. It's definitely a testament to his unrivaled fame that 1.) I just typed “Schwarzenegger” correctly without looking and 2.) spell checker did not flag it (though it did flag “spell checker”). But the prison in that movie was undeniably fascinating, sort of a high-tech boat/labyrinth deal, with lots of superplastic (flagged again even though “superplastic” is totally a word). The funniest part of Escape Plan though is when Stallone uses a piece of wax from a milk carton to cover a keypad in order to figure out the 4 code numbers they're punching in by studying all the greasy fingerprints the guards leave behind. He explains to us, "It was just a numbers game," and bam! types in the correct sequence. But quick calculations reveal that this "numbers game" he’s talking about actually has over 10,000 possible combinations. Wait a minute, so Sly's like Good Will Hunting all the sudden? Why isn’t Will Hunting in prison, by the way. He punches cops!
But speaking of numbers games, I wish there were 10,000 possible combinations of prison films because I’d watch them all. And after seeing maybe 53 prison movies, I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve only read maybe 3 prison books. All nonfiction, too, or at least tangentially based on truth. The Executioner's Song was the big one. Probably in my top ten books of all time, which makes sense because it’s like ten books in one. And, of course, how the fiction and nonfiction are divided up in that thing is pretty inscrutable. So even though Gary Gilmore is a real person, I mostly think of it as Norman Mailer's best novel, partly because of the amalgam of prisoners he channeled to create it, and partly because of the embellishments the author and inspiration made. But more on that later. The other two prison books that stand out in my memory are actually memoirs by inmates. The first is Iron House by Jerome Washington, which has my all-time favorite prison quote, partly because it really takes the piss out of Shawshank Redemption:
“I used to have a large, nude pin-up on my cell wall. It was there, across from the bed, doing time just as I was, until I woke up from a wet dream and, in the half light, thought a naked woman was in the cell with me. When fantasies become that real, it’s time to give them up. The next time I pin up a photograph, it will be of something I can use. Like a helicopter.”
And the last prison book I read, In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott, might be the weirdest story of all (at least the story surrounding the story anyway). When I first read In the Belly of the Beast, I was coming off a couple overheated prison pulp stories, so I was mesmerized by the clear authenticity of it. The prose was ragged, but it felt real, sort of like Ben Hamper's Rivethead, based on his Tales from the Assembly Line columns from the Flint Voice that were published throughout the ‘80s. It was an era of authentic, non-professional, blue-collar voices popping up in literature all of a sudden, and it was pretty clear that Mailer’s obsession with Abbott’s gritty routine is what inspired a lot of The Executioner's Song, as well. Of course, there was also the massive stockpile of Gary Gilmore’s correspondences he had to work with, but Abbott had reached out to convince Mailer that Gilmore’s accounts of prison were mostly exaggeration. He was going to set Mailer straight, you see, so it was Mailer’s famous correspondence with prisoner Abbott, who was serving time for bank robbery and murder, that must have really gotten Norman’s muse dancing during that crucial first draft of The Executioner’s Song, sort of a “Will Graham visits Lector in jail” situation, to get the scent. Makes sense though, as there was no way to correspond with Gary Gilmore after 1977 without a Ouija board.
But after I finished reading In the Belly of the Beast, I was amazed to discover there was a much-less publicized sequel to Abbott’s seminal memoir. I stumbled on this book in the microfiche at my previous bookstore job one day while seeing how many copies of In the Belly of the Beast were at the warehouse. "Holy shit," I whispered when I saw that the follow-up was called The Return. “He got out?!” I said to a confused customer.
Well, yeah, he did. Sort of. And then he got right back in again. Because when I got a copy of The Return in my hands, I was horrified to realize that Abbott, who had been championed by Mailer and his writer friends at the time, had been sprung from prison after a successful letter-writing campaign to the parole board, and everyone was convinced Abbott had a great future in writing and lawfulness. So many famous people were convinced, whether it was the literary crowd on the East Coast or the Hollywood crowd on the West Coast (worst rap battle ever) that they all joined forces to get him out. But no one was prepared for the final twist.
You see, the title didn’t just refer to this return to society, as I’d thought, but instead to his return to prison. Tragically, once released, Abbott murdered waiter/actor/playwright Richard Adan during an argument at a restaurant about using the restroom. Trivia note: When Abbott killed Adan on July 19, 1981, it was one day before The New York Times published a glowing review of In the Belly of the Beast. I hope there weren’t any impressionable writers out there eager to snag a write-up in the The Times by imitating this method.
But I was truly shocked I hadn’t heard about Abbott going back to jail. Because I’d heard quite a bit about his release, and the famous letters to Mailer and all that, but apparently everyone had skipped telling me the big ending, at least in Toledo, Ohio, anyway. As my friend Scott Adlerberg patiently explained to me, Abbott’s last crime was big news outside the Rust Belt, particularly in New York, where Abbott had gone on the run, and apparently a hotshot detective found a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces in Abbott’s apartment and followed this clue all the way to New Orleans, where Abbott was found selling hot dogs from a street cart just like Ignatius Riley did in Toole’s novel. So as it turns out, Mailer was influenced by fact, and Abbott was influenced by fiction. An interesting bit of symmetry.
But, like I said, I didn’t hear that stuff till way later. Back in the ‘90s, it was like the first half of the Mailer/Abbott saga was common knowledge, while the second half, where shit got real dark, remained a mystery. This was back in the pre-internet days, sure, but there also seemed to be a certain sadness surrounding the conclusion of this story. Mailer barely mentioned it in interviews, which seems really strange, and a real missed opportunity, since here was his chance to finally write that real book about prisoners. That’s gotta be as close as someone can get to the prison experience and still remain relatively untouched.
But the fact that Abbott couldn’t assimilate outside of jail was tragic. And, as he details in The Return, maybe he never really wanted to. The Return is a real mess, by the way, and tough to recommend, even if you can find a copy. It includes a play, including stage direction (!) where you can act out the murder in the restaurant if you want to understand why he “had no choice” but to kill the guy over a toilet (yikes), but mostly it’s just a much more unhinged version of In The Belly of the Beast, which is understandable because we all hoped he’d been puked out of that belly for good, even after being state-raised and in and out of jail since age 12. And maybe swallowing someone and spitting them back out so many times makes everyone a little queasy, reader and author alike.
For the epilogue, Jack Abbott eventually committed suicide in his cell, 20 years later, and other artists have paid tribute to Abbott in their own way; John Hillcoat’s prison film Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, for example, partially based on Abbott’s story, was also inspired by his own correspondence with the prisoner, as is Nick Cave’s song “Jack’s Shadow.”
It's probably offensive to suggest a connection between Abbott's inevitable pull back to a harrowing but oddly comforting institutionalized existence and the strange infatuations normally law-abiding citizens, readers and writers alike, have for stories based on incarceration, but what the hell, I'm going to do it anyway! This urge is powerful. And there must be something else to it, as it doesn’t just make people write about the experience of being in prison, but also makes people write to them. I know I’d write letter to the prisons themselves if I could, though an envelope just labeled Alcatraz probably ends up floating in the San Francisco Bay. If I had the time, I’d Google the stats on how many more people seek out prison pen pals than, say, astronauts. But I’ll just take a guess that it’s 10,000 times more. But there are a lot more prisoners than astronauts in the United States, and more every minute, so it’s a numbers game.
So maybe it’s more than a little gross to claim that we, as readers or writers, are drawn to the experience of prison, while doing the time without the crimes, but maybe it’s okay to say we’re drawn to the people who are drawn to it, like Jack Abbott. There is this urge to attempt to live vicariously through murderers, whether it’s on the screen or on the page, so is it better or worse to be drawn to the experience of punishment instead? Okay, maybe not live vicariously though them, exactly, because that’s too much of a dangerous mental commitment. So how about “vi-curious” instead, which rhymes with “bi-curious,” and also gets flagged by the spell checker. And it’s not a great rhyme either, so East Coast rappers would probably use it with impunity and lose that battle.
Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz, edited by David James Keaton and Joe Clifford (Broken River Books) is available now right here: Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz.
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