‘Strangler Bob’, in the Oct 23rd New Yorker is as perfect and satisfying a short story, a prison tale, as I’ve read. but it starts out with a technical challenge that nearly led me to reject it: first person narration by an adolescent.
First person narration is matchless in its immediacy but the reader needs an extra measure of disbelief, in most cases, that the first-person narrator could talk as well as the highly literate writer.
‘Strangler Bob’ does a save in that the late 1960’s adolescent, named Dink by his prison mates, by the end-game of the story is narrating as a 1980’s adult. Story strategy often dictates a shift to an older version of the character in first-person narration to make it more convincing that the fictional voice could talk like an adult when they’re a teenager. It’s like a classic defensive move in a chess game.
The skillful writer can get away with the ambiguity. For most of the story, the teenage Dink is talking in the present time, taking in jail life in the 60’s as it comes. But the reader registers Dink more forcibly when, being at the end of the story, Dink’s more mature voice is revealed 20 years later. The reader back-charges the 30-something Dink to Dink at 18, forgetting that the teenager couldn’t have been talking like the 30-year old with any believability.
The more serious disbelief lies in the penalty exacted by Johnson’s gorgeous prose. Denis Johnson creates literary splendor. He touches English sentences and turns them into gold. His prison inmates may be dining on Chef Boyardee and considering it a gourmet treat, but if they had jail grub equal to the quality of the writing that depicts them, they’d be eating caviar.
Another great American writer, Mark Twain, would have solved this problem by slipping into the street or country slang of his characters. The reader would have to slow down to parse the unfamiliar speech, which would date like century-old bread. In passages of Charles Dickens Hard Times, we crash into the talk of circus folk, and the reader must attempt to mimic the agility of an acrobat to keep up, in the 21st century, with 19th century carny talk.
But I’m giving in and enjoying the story, like the pimply high school dork who gets to date the most beautiful person in school. I’m not questioning it anymore. I’m going to live the dream.
I’ve never been in prison. But I have worked in a warehouse where some of my co-workers were in and out of them. The warehouse workers I knew weren’t as tough or crazy as the jailbirds in Johnson’s tale, and I was only spit on once and strangled once.
About the strangling, I got lucky because my attacker changed his mind. “Okay, I’ll leave you alone,” he said. And he did. He was fired later anyway for knocking out a co-worker and using a company phone to call a girlfriend in another country.
Based on my limited experience, Johnson is spot-on in portraying criminal disfunction and sociopathology. Jocko, a huge blond-haired guy, organizes a five-card draw card game in which the player with the highest hand gets to slug all the losers hard in the shoulder. This game does a lot of damage.
Jocko is subject to bouts of barely controllable rage. He has a kind of fit where he wanders around the cell block (the prisoners are allowed out of their cells to walk around and socialize) shouting that he can’t take it anymore. The cell block has a “panic button” located by the gate that in an emergency will summon the guards. But while the guys are wandering around the floor, they post their own guard on the button so it can’t be hit.
One morning, a bunch of the guys decide to kill a prisoner. The hapless victim, a kind of scapegoat or odd man out, tries to ignore the thugs who are giving him the eye and scoping out the best opportunity to murder him. He watches television while they stare at him. But they change their mind by the afternoon and forget about killing him.
As for Jocko, he could be beating you up one day and inviting you to a card game the next. There’s Dundun, a compact, muscular man who, based on his ability, might qualify for the U.S. gymnastics team. He practices swinging around on the bars like a primate. He’s in practice for the second story jobs he hopes to pull as soon as he gets out.
The guys make sociopathic decisions when they are out of jail, like breaking into a bar because they think they are owed money…or choking their spouses to death. If there’s a gene that regulates how you are supposed to act in civil society, these guys are missing it. It’s a form of criminal autism. They don’t “get” following the rules.
It’s as if being in prison is a lead-lined envelope that they are in. They slip out of the envelope for a brief time and slip back into it again. In the ecology of normative civilian life, they are like a species that is marked for extinction or for the life span of mayflies.
But Denis Johnson’s prose is beautiful, in its word rhythms, characterizations and scene-painting. Johnson’s language sings as Strangler Bob’s moths flame-out.