Scott's Note: Longtime Do Some Damage contributor Thomas Pluck is back today, and he's talking about his new novel, The Boy From County Hell. It's the second Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, the follow-up to Bad Boy Boogie. While Bad Boy Boogie, which was excellent, took place in New Jersey (where Thomas lives), The Boy From County Hell takes place in Louisiana. We'll learn a little here about why the author wanted to set this book in that particular place.
The Boy From County Hell
by Thomas Pluck
Because I wanted to share everything I love and hate about Louisiana.
I learned of the state watching Justin Wilson, the Cajun chef, on PBS as a child. Then I read James Lee Burke, which culminated in a college road trip in a Mustang, from Rutgers Newark to Mulate's in New Orleans. I worked at the Port there, married a woman from Baton Rouge, and visited once or twice a year.
There's a lot to love about Louisiana.
And plenty not to.
I'm from New Jersey, which has a lot in common. Swamps, corruption, and great food. Another place many have a love-hate relationship with.
Mostly hate, to be honest, and we like it that way. It's crowded enough.
I had no idea that inmates were allowed to write a magazine, much less one as old and storied as The Angolite, the magazine of Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola. We just accept the nickname, which comes from the nationality of the majority of the people in the enslavement camp that existed on the land the prison sits on. "Plantation" isn't the right word, it never was, and after visiting The Whitney Plantation Museum on the Mississippi River—the only museum of such a place dedicated to the victims of slavery—I'll use "enslavement camp."
Sugar was a deadly business, and we get the term "sold down the river" from the death sentence of being sold to a sugar enslavement camp. The life expectancy of the enslaved there was just 7 years, over boiling kettles of sweet napalm.
One might call also call the Penitentiary an enslavement camp, as the inmates grow all the vegetables for the incarcerated in the state of Louisiana. Which is where the prison gets its other nickname.
They can also make crafts to sell at the twice-yearly prison Rodeo, the only one of its kind. Where the inmates volunteer to face bulls and broncos, without any training, for our entertainment. "Volunteer" has little meaning when you're facing life, as the majority of the 5800 inmates are, and you have limited means to raise money to help your family or impress your children, who live with the stigma of a father in prison. After attending the rodeo I felt dirty. I went to the craft pavilion and spent what money I had on a belt buckle and a belt, and looked the men who made them in the eye with respect, the absolute least I could do.
Former Warden Burl Cain was beyond parody. For one, a writer dreams of inventing a perfect name like Burl Cain...And Cain pushed the Farm to the limits, using the cheap labor and a folksy religious charm to make it about rehabilitation and redemption, which has little meaning when freedom is impossible.
Much of the writing in The Angolite opines for the old days when life sentence meant 20 or so years. Now it means dying in the prison hospice.
Cain resigned after he was found using the labor of his inmates for personal gain, but he walks free.
No Shawshank Redemption ending here.
There's a lot more corruption than the prison. Public defenders get no funding. Only recently did Louisiana begin requiring that a jury be unanimous to sentence you guilty. It had been 10 out of 12.
But I love the state and its people. It is unique, much older than the United States of America, but also the perfect example of everything right and wrong with the country as a whole.
That's why Jay Desmarteaux is The Boy From County Hell.
And as Bon Scott of AC/DC would say, "Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be."
You can get The Boy From County Hell here.