Saturday, December 22, 2007

Book Review: In The Belly Of The Beast by Jack Henry Abbott

With the recent passing of Norman Mailer, literary great and native New Yorker, I was compelled to re-read ITBOTB and share with you what Paul Harvey would call, “the rest of the story.”

TBOTB is a cold stark look into the everyday reality of life of a maximum security prisoner, written by one who knows. Jack Henry Abbott, a career criminal whose crimes range from forgery, bank robbery and murder, tells tales of life inside the Big House with a heavy emphasis on how the prison system is designed to crush a man’s soul and render him the equivalent of a caged animal. With maudlin, yet poetic, comments like, “When they talk of ghosts of the dead who wander in the night with things still undone in life, they approximate my subjective experience of this life”, Abbott mythologizes his existence until he is completely transformed into a hypocritical version of Marley’s Ghost, a phantom that blames his unearthly torment on the evils of capitalism and not his own personal greed.

Every violent offense Abbott commits in prison is rationalized by him as a blow against a corrupt and morally bankrupted system of prison rule and regulations described in this quote: “Imagine a thousand more such daily intrusions in your life, every hour and minute of every day, and you can grasp the source of this paranoia, this anger that could consume me at any moment if I lost control.” Judging by his prison record, he lost control many times -- including fatally knifing a fellow inmate.

One part true crime, three part propaganda, Abbott’s book is an interesting read; a self serving testament that shows us why the word “con” is the first three letters in convict.

And now the rest of the story.

While Mailer was writing The Executioner’s Song, he receives a letter from a convict named Jack Abbott. Yearly, the author would obtain hundreds of letters for people all claiming that their life would be an interesting subject for his next book – but this letter intrigued Mailer. Abbott, after reading in the newspaper that Mailer was in the process of writing a book about prison violence and convicts, offers to help Mailer by sharing his true-life experiences. Mailer takes the con up on his offer, and in rapid succession a stream on letters floods the author’s office, each one more intense, more thought provoking on the subject of the flaws of the State’s penal system. So enamored by Abbott’s prose and radical beliefs, Mailer got some of his letters published in the New York Review of Books. Shortly afterwards, Mailer convinces his publisher to print the letters in book form with an introduction by him. ITBOTB is published and quickly becomes a national bestseller. Using Abbott’s new found literary talents and celebrity as a reason for early parole, Mailer petitions the board and wins Abbott’s release. When question by the Press if he thinks Abbott is still a risk to society, he states, "Culture is worth a little risk."

Six week after his release, Abbott stabbed to death a waiter named Richard Adan when Adan told him that he would have to use the restroom in the store next to the restaurant because their toilet was backed-up. After lambing-it for a few months, he was captured, charged with murder and sent back into what he refers to as "the belly of the beast. "

Richard Adan's widow successfully sued him and receives all the money from the book's sales, so pick up two copies today!

No comments: