Lost in the shadows

February 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Four Stages of Cruelty. Keith Hollihan; $29.99 cloth 978-0-312-59247-9, 394 pp., Thomas Dunne Books.

Sometimes the experience of reading one book informs the experience of reading another. Books do not exist in a vacuum, and each successive work has a place on an evolving continuum of literature against which it will be judged and, in some cases, found wanting.

I came to Keith Hollihan’s debut novel, The Four Stages of Cruelty, immediately after finishing Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. Although not precisely a prison novel, Carpenter’s book does feature a section set in a reform school and another in San Quentin. The Four Stages of Cruelty, by contrast, is very definitely a prison novel: it tells the story of Kali Williams, a corrections officer at Ditmarsh Penitentiary, and her relationship with Joshua Riff, a teenaged inmate incarcerated for murder. Kali is charged with escorting Josh to his father’s funeral; while the two are on the road, she breaks her own rule about maintaining an emotional distance between herself and the prison inmates, and falls into a conversation with the young man. Josh tries to give Kali a comic book he has drawn about life inside Ditmarsh, and although she refuses to accept it, she quickly finds herself getting sucked into the internecine world of corruption and deceit the book portrays.

Hollihan wants to depict the shifting morality and questionable ethics that operate within an enclosed environment where it is frequently difficult to discern the good guys from the bad. As “one of only 26 women on a corrections staff of 312,” Kali has developed a heightened cynicism as a coping mechanism; this is juxtaposed with Josh’s almost blithe naïveté. (The narrative alternates between Kali’s first-person sections, and Josh’s, which are told in the third person.) “I can think of no gentle way to begin,” says Kali at the outset, and indeed the book is replete with violence and acts of degradation. But Kali is interested in exploring “the mystery of compassion” that can assert itself in even such a seemingly inimical environment as Ditmarsh, which adds a philosophical note to the story.

Unfortunately, all of this is presented in a manner that is too schematic to be entirely satisfying. Kali learns that Josh was a member of an art therapy group run by Brother Mike, a civilian, or “weak sister” in prison parlance. Brother Mike does pottery: “It’s comforting to me,” he tells Kali, “that beauty can come from violence, if only in metaphor.” The heaviness of this is typical of Brother Mike’s function in the book, which is more or less to act as a mouthpiece for Hollihan’s thematic concerns. Not that such vocalization is necessary. Hollihan peppers his narrative with pithy epigrammatic reminders that the story is attempting to deal with weighty themes: “Hope was like an adrenaline shot,” we are told. “It gave you a jolt of heart-thumping life and left you beat to shit afterward.”

But these themes are ineffectively grafted onto a pulp storyline involving a former inmate, known as the Beggar, who secreted a cache of money within the prison walls. Even this lowbrow plot is ineffectively handled: the novel’s climax involves a prison riot that does not build the necessary tension, and there is a beheading that recalls the Daniel Pearl incident in a way that verges on exploitation.

The novel’s various parts never coalesce, and the high-minded philosophical musings seem like an afterthought meant to lend a pulp story a veneer of mock grandeur. This is in stark contrast to the very real philosophical heft of Hard Rain Falling, a novel that seamlessly integrates its existential elements into its story. Here, for example, is a passage from the reform school section of Carpenter’s novel:

There were six punishment cells, and communication of a sort could be made by yelling, but most of the time it required too much effort, or Jack’s senses were gone and he could not hear. But sometimes he did. He could hear other boys being brought in, yelling, cursing, some of them crying, and he himself suppressed all feelings of pity for the others; they did not pity him. They probably thought he was some kind of hero. Well, fuck them, too. Maybe in the cells they would learn the truth as he had, and know that nothing existed but a single spark of energy, and that spark could die for no reason, and existed for no reason. Then they would understand that it does no good to cry out, because a spark of energy has no ears; the ears are a lie, a joke, a dream, to keep the spark going, and there is no reason to keep the spark going. Any more than there is a reason for letting it go out.

By contrast, here is Brother Mike in conversation with Josh in The Four Stages of Cruelty:

“Since the early days of this country, there have been men with good intentions who thought the secret to reform was changing a man’s behavior. If you can’t change character, they felt, then why not change how a felon acts in the world? I don’t think that’s the answer. It’s a kind of programming for reducing incidents of violence, with dubious results. The soul needs more attention than that. You might as well wait until a man is old and toothless if you want to solve the problem of violence. Let nature run its course, and a man gets too weary to take such instant and disproportionate offense at all the perceived slights of the world. But that doesn’t mean he’s a better man.”

“But what if he’s a better man before his time is up – isn’t it unjust to forget about him for a couple of decades or so?” Josh was roused to his own defense. He knew it was a trick. You weren’t supposed to question the calculus of justice.

There is a kind of facile obviousness to the Hollihan passage that is completely absent from Carpenter’s writing. Some would suggest that such comparisons are unfair; I prefer to align myself with James Joyce, who felt that every time he wrote he was in competition with Shakespeare and Dante. Would I have liked The Four Stages of Cruelty more had I not just come off reading Hard Rain Falling? It’s impossible to say. Knowing that Carpenter’s novel is so strong, does Hollihan’s appear pale by comparison? Without a doubt.

Dostoevsky in America

January 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Hard Rain Falling. Don Carpenter; $21.00 paper 978-1-59017-324-4, 308 pp., New York Review Books.

Although Don Carpenter’s eight finished novels and two collections of stories received critical acclaim during the author’s lifetime, almost all of them are out of print today, and Carpenter can hardly be called one of America’s best-known literary luminaries. New York Review Books, which in the past few years has become an invaluable resource for bringing renewed attention to unjustly forgotten or overlooked literary works, did a great service by reissuing Carpenter’s coruscating first novel, 1966’s Hard Rain Falling, in 2009.

When critics discuss the novel (if they discuss it at all), they tend to refer to it as a crime novel or a prison story. Jonathan Lethem, a longtime admirer of Carpenter’s, calls Hard Rain Falling “one of the best prison novels in American literature,” but this is reductive in the extreme. Indeed, only about one-third of the book, which tells the story of orphan and drifter Jack Levitt, takes place in reform school, or later, San Quentin. The balance of the novel follows Jack as he meanders through various encounters in pool halls and dive bars, eventually settling into a domestic story involving Jack’s attempt to redeem himself by marrying and fathering a son. The San Quentin material, which forms the central third of the novel, is convincingly rendered, and would certainly have been controversial in 1966 due to its overtly homosexual content, but nevertheless accounts for only one aspect of a much larger, more ambitious narrative.

Richard Price comes closer to the mark when he refers to Hard Rain Falling as “a beat-era book of disaffected young men devoid of On the Road euphoria but more poignant and gripping for its fatalistic grounding.” It is, however, not only the lack of euphoria that sets Carpenter’s novel apart from On the Road. Kerouac, who was raised Catholic, was always quick to point out that the Beat Generation was “basically a religious generation,” and that what the characters in On the Road were pursuing was a kind of spiritual enlightenment. John Clellon Holmes recognized that Kerouac’s characters were “on a quest, and that the specific object of their quest was spiritual. Though they rushed back and forth across the country on the slightest pretext, gathering kicks along the way, their real journey was inward; and if they seemed to trespass most boundaries, legal and moral, it was only in the hope of finding a belief on the other side.”

Jack, by contrast, is not possessed of a spiritual vision. Quite the contrary: his early experiences at the orphanage have rendered any notion of spiritual transcendence fanciful at best.

At the orphanage they had gone to religious services every Sunday morning in the dining room and listened to different preachers tell them that God loved them especially because they were orphans and that they had a hard lot in life, but the hardness of their lot gave them a precious opportunity to be particularly saintly in their conduct, to be obedient, to be moral, without having placed in front of them the temptations toward sin that come to children who have sinful parents around them, tempting them away from the path of goodness by their bad example; how they, the children of the orphanage, were the results of the sins of their fathers, and yet at the same time had this great opportunity to lead blameless, uncontaminated lives of purity and virtue; to obey the rules and be especially beloved of Jesus Christ, who Himself disowned His own Mother and made Himself into an orphan, so to speak … But it did not take much thinking on their part to see that if Jesus Christ and God approved of the administration of the orphanage, in fact preferred it to home and parents, then they were the enemies of the orphanage children because if that hollow cavity in their souls was the love of God then God was the murderer of love.

Later on, while incarcerated in San Quentin, Jack thinks that “there has got to be a God, because only an insane God could have created such a universe.” Jack’s blasphemous philosophy is based in a repudiation of spirituality, not a Kerouac-like pursuit of it. Early in the novel, as if to underline a fidelity to his almost anti-religious worldview, Jack’s teenage yearnings are described in precise, earthly detail:

He had desires, and nobody was going to drop out of the sky to satisfy them. He tried to milk a little self-pity out of this thought, but it did not work: he had to recognize that he preferred his singularity, his freedom. All right. He knew what he wanted. He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey. He wanted a car, in which he could drive a hundred miles an hour (he had only recently learned how to drive, and he loved the feelings of speed and control, the sharpness of the danger). He wanted some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes. He wanted a .45 automatic. He wanted a record player in the big hotel room he wanted, so he could lie in bed with his whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to “How High the Moon” and “Artistry Jumps.” That was what he wanted. So it was up to him to get these things.

Jack’s dearth of spiritual belief is bundled up in the fact that he is unable to “milk a little self-pity” out of the realization that “nobody was going to drop out of the sky” to give him what he wants. Rather, Jack understands, “it was up to him to get these things.” Like Dean Moriarty in On the Road, Jack pursues freedom, but unlike Dean, he does not do so in any kind of mystic capacity. Still, Jack is not without what he calls a “vision” for his future, a vision that he feels involves “a wildness in itself, a succession of graduated pleasures and loves and joys.” Conceiving of himself as a “cynical optimist,” he imagines that his “vague” and “childish” hopes are preferable to those whose lives have already been laid out for them:

If they seemed too noisy, too wild, too defiant, perhaps it was a little out of desperation, because lying before them were endless years of dull existence, shabby jobs, unattractive mates, and brats with no more future than themselves.

There is a piercing irony in the fact that Jack’s adolescent fear of becoming trapped in a life of domesticity and responsibility is realized after his release from San Quentin, when he meets and eventually marries Sally, the boozy ex-wife of a motion picture actor. The couple has a child, which Jack names Billy after his friend and prison cellmate (with whom Jack had a homosexual affair while incarcerated). Carpenter employs a number of ironic reversals in the novel’s final section, as Jack’s earlier lust for freedom and disdain for authority are supplanted by an incipient love for his son, which sees him taking a series of thankless jobs in order to raise enough money to support his family. When Sally becomes pregnant, Jack’s earlier dismissal of his own conception – “A penis squirts, and I am doomed to a life of death” – is turned on its head as he begins to see in his son the vague possibility of his own redemption. Sally, meanwhile, finds domestic life an unbearable constraint on her desire to socialize and run free; she frequently leaves Billy in the custody of a Chinese babysitter while she goes out drinking.

Jack’s existential malaise crystallizes in his terrified realization that there is nothing he can do to ensure that his child will grow up safe from the scourges of a fallen world:

It was an awful word. Nothing. It made him sick at heart. He refused to believe in it. He demanded that there be something he could do. He demanded that his love be worth something to his child. If it wasn’t, life was garbage. He had to rule out the idea that life was just a matter of accident, or percentages, because it was just too goddam much to stand for. Even if it was true, he was determined to live as if it were false.

This determination ultimately proves illusory, as it must for someone whose entire existence is vested in a rebellion against institutionalized order, a rebellion that begins in the orphanage and continues right through his stay in prison. At the end of the novel, Jack has not abandoned his pursuit of freedom, but his conception of it has changed substantially:

[The] freedom he had always yearned for and never understood was beyond his or any man’s reach, and … all men must yearn for it equally; a freedom from the society of mankind without its absence; a freedom from connection, from fear, from trouble, and above all from the loneliness of being alive.

This passage from the final section of the novel – a section titled, not incidentally, “Meaningful Lives” – puts the lie to those who want to reduce the novel to a mere crime story. The pervasive existentialism, so reminiscent of Dostoevsky (a writer Jack admires, because they both spent time in prison), is only one layer in a story that deals incisively with matters of class, race, and sexuality. George Pelecanos, in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, calls Hard Rain Falling a novel of ideas, which seems correct. “As in all good literature,” Pelecanos writes, “it attempts to answer the question of why we’re here and does so in a provocative way.” It is a powerhouse novel, which deserves to find a new audience.