Book Review : Hard Sentences - Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz (2017)
Do I care about Alcatraz at all?
It's what I asked myself when I was offered a review copy of short story anthology Hard Sentences : Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz by its co-editor, literary terrorist David James Keaton. I don't know much about it. It's a famous prison. People deemed it inescapable because it was (and still is, I suppose) located on an island surrounded by sharks. Al Capone was incarcerated there for some time. That's it. So, I suppose it didn't interest me all that much. But I said yes to Keaton anyway. Because he's like that cousin you can't say no to that your mother didn't want around. So, could HE (and Joe Clifford) make Alcatraz interesting?
Interesting isn't the work I would use. Unexpected would be more suiting.
Alcatraz, State of Mind
The only reference I had for fiction inspired by Alcatraz prior to reading this anthology is the movie Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood. The stories in Hard Sentences : Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz aren't anything like it. They're about people in prison, alright. Some of the stories are about people escaping, but I was surprised how much of an abstraction the actual prison was in many of them. And I suspect this reflects the reality of incarceration quite accurately. Alcatraz is not mentioned by name a lot. The majority of character don't dwell on their reasons of their incarceration or don't do it too long. The prison is either their entire world or this challenge they think of in their own terms. They don't think of themselves as fugitives. I thought that alone gave Hard Sentences : Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz a strong identity.
Chaplinsky, Gray, Sparks, Rhyne and the Others
My favorite story in Hard Sentences : Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz was Joshua Chaplinsky's moody and atmospheric The Ghosts of 14D. It's about an inmate losing his mind in the stillness and darkness of mid-century incarceration, like death was taking a down payment on him. It's not the first time Chaplinsky freaks me out. That guy is good. Glenn Gray's opener Break made me realize how much I missed the medical obsessions that inform his fiction. Not only Break has a brutal scientific accuracy to it, but it's protagonist brutal, self-sacrificing resolve give an otherwise super informative story a visceral edge to it. I've greatly enjoyed this story, but I enjoy most of what Glenn Gray does. These were quite straightforward incarceration stories, though. They explored different aspects of it, but prison is the backbone of both narratives. Hard Sentences : Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz is about much more than that.
Some inmates say the beating if your heart is the closest thing to a ticking clock. That's why they call it a ticker. That, and it's like the timer on a bomb, counting down, only you have no idea when it will explode. (Joshua Chaplinsky, The Ghosts of 14D)
Amber Sparks' The Children and the Gardener is another gorgeous piece in this short story anthology. What I like about it is that it doesn't treat incarceration as some kind of damnation. It explores the other side of the tunnel, which is quite uncommon for prison stories. Leah Rhyne's The Music Box was another stand out in the collection. It was appropriately graceful and tragic. Other stories I think stood out on the collection were: Nick Mamatas' Being Whitey, Jedidiah Ayres' Clean Shot, Max Booth III's atypical Roller Canary and, for better or worse, Nick Kolakowski's Live at Alcatraz, which I thought was a great idea but somehow of a missed opportunity. The idea of a Johnny Cash lost Alcatraz concert is amazing, but I thought the story put the Man in Black on too much of a pedestal. There could've been a hundred eerier reasons why the concert became a lost to popular culture. It was a fun and memorable concept nonetheless.
Is Alcatraz interesting?
It's a tentative yes? The stories of Hard Sentences : Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz are definitely not for everybody. My natural curiosity lead me through it and I came across pleasant surprises. But you gotta be in the mood for prison stories and that's a rather precise mood to be in. Keaton and Clifford put together a sweeping portrait of the Alcatraz experience, though and if you decided to crack this baby open, you're bound to find something of your liking or something that transcends you idea of what prison stories can be. Hard Sentences : Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz is fun and unpredictable. Voracious readers like me will enjoy it. Otherwise it's a great tool to understand not what prison is, but what prison means to people involved with it.