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.