Dostoevsky’s America

Karl Miller

  • In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison by Jack Henry Abbott
    Random House, 166 pp, $11.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 394 51858 6

In 1979 there appeared Norman Mailer’s long book The Executioner’s Song – a thousand paperback pages, as it subsequently became, on the strange case of Gary Gilmore, the murderer who insisted on being put to death, insisted that the state keep its word.[*] In March of the following year, in the London Review of Books, the book was examined at length by Christopher Ricks, whose piece was reprinted – at Mailer’s suggestion, or so I was told at the time – in the form of an advertisement in the New York Review of Books. The piece was laudatory – excited, even exalted: it argued for special qualities of sympathy and self-effacement on the part of a writer long thought of as richly self-advertising, which were held to impart a balanced view of the human realities that constituted the Gilmore story. I wondered at the time whether this praise of Mailer’s ‘magnanimity’ might not conceal, on the part of both writers, an infatuation with the murderer as victim, at the expense of those whom his misery leads him to destroy. Then I read the book. It is, as Ricks says, a masterpiece, and it was clear that the review was not reprinted just because it was favourable. It is a fitting homage to the work it examines.

The Executioner’s Song calls itself a ‘factual account’, and it abounds in researched particulars: but it is a factual account which inhabits the great tradition of Gothic strangeness, to which Mailer’s allegiance seems to be very little understood. He is a believer in romantic duality, which affirms a principle of division, whereby someone may be two people, and which is also related, structurally and historically, to a contrasting principle of multiplicity, whereby someone, very often some author, may be more than two. Both principles are evident in this book, the second working authorially to confer a self-effacing capacity to see all sides of the Gilmore question: Mailer’s magnanimity can therefore be seen as an aspect of the negative capability of Romanticism. The telling of the story is divided in two, ‘Western Voices’ being succeeded by ‘Eastern Voices’: mainly, in those words of Dickens’s which Eliot liked so much, it ‘does’ the many ‘different voices’ of the paranoid people of working-class Utah – ‘they were all feeling pretty paranoid’ – locked in a travail of love, hate, liquor, sticks of pot, broken marriages, trailer camps, trucks, rental arrangements, lunatic asylums, prisons, guns. All this, and much else, may be seen as romance. Research has even supplied a romantic grandfather for Gilmore in the person of the escapologist Houdini, who has been worming his way through the American fiction of recent times.

In Mailer’s earlier book Marilyn, Marilyn Monroe is described as split, as a union of opposites, ‘triumphant and crushed’, tough and shy, as an equivocal orphan: ‘Two personalities within one human being may be better able to evaluate experience (even as two eyes gauge depth), provided the personalities are looking more or less in the same direction.’ Later, taking a second shot at a portrait of Marilyn, he supplied, as a dualistic proof, the idea that a person may be a compound of the two people who brought him into the world. Further proof has been obtained from the East. The Mailer who used to speak of the need to encourage the psychopath in yourself has latterly been a metempsychosist, a born-again Buddhist, committed to a theory of rebirth and to the doctrine of karma. Again in Marilyn, he writes: ‘it could be time to look upon human behaviour as possessed of a double root. While the dominant trunk of our actions has to be influenced by the foreground of our one life here and now and living, the other root may be attached to some karmic virtue or debt some of us (or all of us) acquired by our courage or failure in lives we have already lived.’ As it turned out, Gilmore himself and others in Utah were found by the demonic, dualistic Mailer to share his interest in reincarnation, psychic division, evil spirits, vampires.

Mailer does far more than most writers with the myth of duality: but there is less of it in The Executioner’s Song than there is in Marilyn, and the greater power of the more recent book hints that there may not be much more for him to do with it. He has also been drawn, over the years, to a myth of violence, which produced the fraudulence of An American Dream: The Executioner’s Song is not fraudulent, and the violence in it proclaims no myth. As for its evil spirits, these denote a highly traditional artist, willing to revert to the superstitions which accompanied the first phases of duality in the Romantic period. There is a key episode in the Gilmore book where his girlfriend Nicole perceives him, shortly before his killings, to be very sinister:

She had her legs wrapped around his waist, and her arms over his neck. With her eyes closed, she had the odd feeling of an evil presence near her that came from Gary. She found it kind of half agreeable. Said to herself, Well, if he is the devil, maybe I want to get closer.

   It wasn’t a terrifying sensation so much as a strong and strange feeling, like Gary was a magnet and had brought down a lot of spirits on himself. Of course, those psychos behind all those screened windows could call up anything out of the night ground in back of the nuthouse.

   In the dark, she asked: ‘Are you the devil?’

Gilmore is eventually to write to Nicole: ‘I’m not Beelzebub. And I know the devil can’t feel love. But I might be further from God than I am from the devil.’ This does not serve to erase the episode from the reader’s mind: it is arrestingly successful, and the sense of Gilmore as possessed – or, dualistically, as half-possessed, and half-agreeable to her as such – is in one way neither strange nor odd: that is to say, it is not at odds with other emphases which inform this factual account of the desperations of Utah.

In this connection, and in others, Mailer may also be thought to revert to Dostoevsky, who belongs to the same romantic tradition, and was another believer in the duality of human nature. No works show more affinity with this one than Crime and Punishment and The Possessed, otherwise called The Devils. In the latter, a character executes himself on grounds of principle, and Stavrogin’s wife, demented and crippled, bears a real resemblance to Nicole’s sister April, who calls herself a ‘split personality’; a preoccupation with child-molesting is shared with the Mailer. But there is more to the matter than the existence of common themes or elements. All these works are carried forward, as in a dream or in drink, on a tide of anxiety and fear and love: madness, or half-madness, is debated and imputed, and seeing double is no big deal. The Gothic tradition speaks both of the duality and of the madness of human nature: the crimes to which its fictions confess are crimes of dementia and delirium, and yet these fictions may persuade us that madness is inherent in the human response to crisis and contradiction. For the Gothic imagination, paranoia is by no means the outlandish illness which doctors cannot cure or define, and which causes tactics and fiascos in court. It may seem strange, but it is not rare. It is all over Utah.

When Norman Mailer was writing the Gilmore book, compiling his 15,000-page transcript of interview material, he received a letter from a man named Jack Abbott. The man had a lot in common with Gilmore. Both had spent a huge proportion of their lives in detention. Still in jail, Abbott went on to dispatch a series of letters which were meant to instruct Mailer in the ways of the American prison system. Mailer was impressed – for him, Abbott looks and sounds like Lenin – and the letters have now become a book, In the Belly of the Beast. Given Mailer’s beliefs, it is possible to think of this as an incident in the history of his engagement with duality, to think of Abbott as a deutero-Gilmore. ‘The two men could not be more different,’ Mailer remarks in his Introduction: Abbott hates death, while, for Gilmore, a ‘romantic and a mystic’, who ‘saw incarceration as a species of karma’, death was ‘a species of romantic solution’. Abbott is a thinker, and more of a writer, according to Mailer. But he then goes on to compare the two of them. Abbott told him he at one stage ‘completely identified himself with Gilmore’: ‘if you went into any prison that held Gilmore and me and asked for all of the prisoners with certain backgrounds, both in and out of prison, backgrounds that include observed (and suspected) behavior, you will get a set of files, a list of names, and my file and name will always be handed you along with Gilmore’s ...’ This may mean that both were deemed to be trouble, hard-core convicts, subversives. Both men, moreover, had been in and out of the State of Utah.

Even if you were reluctant to accept more than a little of Abbott’s information as wholly valid, it would be necessary to think that both men were victims of an atrocious prison system, which tortures and persecutes its inmates, and sets them at each other’s throats: convicts die violently, he claims, at the rate of more than four a day. He explains that there are not that many ‘homosexuals’ behind bars, but that homosexual friendships, based on intimidation, domination, protection, and a need for comfort and affection, are a large feature of the system. Half-Irish and half-Chinese, Jack Abbott was fostered out soon after birth and his incarcerations began at nine. At 18, he was sent for bouncing a cheque to Utah State Penitentiary, on a sentence of up to five years. Three years after that, he stabbed another prisoner to death in a fight. In Abbott’s book, the premeditated prison knifing is made to seem both like a matter of routine and like an act of love. In such murders one may detect the participation of the kind of judge who sentences a youth to five years in jail for a small felony with a cheque.

Slowly he begins to struggle for his life. As he sinks, you have to kill him fast or get caught. He will say ‘Why?’ Or ‘No!’ Nothing else. You can feel his life trembling through the knife in your hand. It almost overcomes you, the gentleness of the feeling at the center of a coarse act of murder. You’ve pumped the knife in several times without even being aware of it. You go to the floor with him to finish him. It is like cutting hot butter, no resistance at all. They always whisper one thing at the end: ‘Please.’

From the age of 12 to that of 37, Abbott had been free for only nine and half months.

He was now being considered for parole, and it seems that his parole was hastened by the intercession of Mailer – ‘it is certainly the time for him to get out’ – and some associates. The superfluous biographical note at the end of his autobiography treats as superfluous all information save the date and place of his birth and the fact that ‘he has written for the New York Review of Books,’ and when the letters were published Random House announced: ‘Convict-Author Free at Last with New Book Thanks to Mailer, NYRB and Random Editor.’ On leaving prison this summer, Abbott got into a row in a Manhattan restaurant, took a knife to a waiter and committed a coarse act of murder.

The event will give pleasure to opponents of liberal philanthropy and the literary Left. In fact, such outcomes are almost as common as prison murders. The feeling for victims, for the moral superiority of prisoners, is certainly treacherous. It has its intricacies and declivities, its slips and its knives. It is also very widespread. The London Times has been paying attention to Alan Reeve, a murderer currently on the run from Broadmoor, a borstal boy at 13, a reader of Marx and Lenin in prison, like Abbott. Reeve told his interviewer about an unhappy childhood, and explained: ‘Barry Jackson died as a surrogate for all those I perceived as my enemies.’ But not many people would like to live in a country where attentions of this kind had died out, and those who feel sorry for prisoners are usually aware that suffering creates suffering, and is likely to go on creating it until the end of a life. And they are usually aware of what it means to say, as Mailer does here of America: ‘we won’t get law and order without a revolution in the prison system.’

As for Abbott’s Confessions, or instructions, what do you make of a man who has passed most of his lifetime in prison, who denounces, with reason, America’s penal practices, and who has come in the course of his ordeals to admire the torturers and imprisoners Stalin and Castro? Mailer doubts Abbott’s political opinions, but makes out that there’s a chance he may prove to be a great writer.

In my judgment, these letters are seldom those even of a good writer. If he hadn’t spent all those years in jail, they would be seen as very sententious: Notebook stuff which places an excessive reliance on what aphorism and assertion can achieve. Gilmore deals, by contrast, Mailer points out, in particulars. But Abbott is nothing like the writer that Gilmore is, when roused, during his last days, in his letters to Nicole: ‘I’m so used to bullshit and hostility, deceit and pettiness, evil and hatred. Those things are my natural habitat. They have shaped me. I look at the world through eyes that suspect, doubt, fear, hate, cheat, mock, are selfish and vain.’ Later in the same letter: ‘What do I do, rot in prison? growing old and bitter and eventually work this around in my mind to where it reads that I’m the one who’s getting fucked around, that I’m just an innocent victim of society’s bullshit?’

Some of the faults that could be picked in Abbott’s book are the consequence of hardship unimaginable to most readers: the drive to get even, the advocacy of a punitive Communism; the talk of how his IQ jumped with the study of Marx and Lenin – as measured by the prison psychologist he presumably despises; the bookishness, the dropping of the austere names of Quine and Carnap. More serious is the sense that what he says in one place invalidates what he says in another. The book describes a body of convicts who are always at each other’s throats and who are always backing each other up. The literature of duality could address itself to this contradiction, and there might well be other ways of explaining it too: Abbott simply lets it lie there on the page. ‘No one,’ he writes (to Mailer, remember), ‘has ever held out a hand to help me to be a better man.’ But the book opens with an Acknowledgment of the gratitude he feels to the sister who ‘saw me through everything described in this book, and has kept something alive in me that would otherwise have perished long ago’.

There are interesting passages and asides, behind which can be caught the pressure of the education he courageously pursued for himself, and the book is best when he displays something of Gilmore’s grasp of what prison, and America, have done to shape him:

When I’m forced by circumstances to be in a crowd of prisoners, it’s all I can do to refrain from attack. I feel such hostility, such hatred, I can’t help this anger. All these years I have felt it. Paranoid.

And he adds: ‘My passions are those of a boy.’

If everyone is paranoid, prisons will only make you worse. On the subject of hostility, Abbott can be challenging and acute. It occurs to him, he writes while reading Stendhal, ‘that, in this existential age, the last vestiges of romanticism appear to us today (in social intercourse) as paranoia.’ We might suppose, however, that it was there from the first. His own relation to romanticism is deceptive. He seems here to be denying a connection, and it may indeed be right to regard him as a philosopher, doping up among the hard cases, gaining the respect of the other prisoners with his punitive Communism, and as very different from a romantic like Gilmore, the death-seeker and reincarnationist. At the same time, he is a target for romantic feelings, an outcast coldly pleading for ‘justice’, and for ‘consideration’ – a word that frequently recurs in the annals of literary alienation. He is the kind of outcast whose behaviour has been made monstrous by monstrous ill-treatment – a no less traditional state. He rounds off the story of an ex-cop persecuted in prison, and driven to suicide, with the remark: ‘This pig was so typical a dirty pig, he could have passed for the Georgian highway patrolman in the car commercial.’ And he is the kind of outcast who dreams of a grand freedom – of an absolute liberation of the will. He says of the murders that have to be undertaken among prisoners: ‘If you can kill like that, you can do anything.’ He stands beyond good and evil in the antinomian-paranoid manner of ‘Stavrogin’s Confession’ in The Possessed.

It is not surprising that Dostoevsky should be among the important writers referred to by Abbott. ‘My heart is pounding,’ he writes when a guard is attacked and Abbott tries to escape: Stavrogin’s ‘heart began to pound’ as he moved towards the seduction of his innocent. Mailer’s, and Abbott’s, America, with its crimes, punishments and dreams of escape, is vividly predicted in the literature of the past. Dostoevsky was paranoid, or half-paranoid, before he was sentenced to death, and he seems to have been shaped by his experience of prison: it is natural for Abbott to pay attention to him. He is praised by Abbott for conveying that sinners, shits, ‘are all capable of dying for a just cause, a “beautiful idea”, a principle’. After a while, however, the Russian terrorist Nechayev is praised with reference to Abbott’s dictum that ‘the first “natural” revolutionaries ever born to society always die in prisons, always die after long torture and debasement.’ Abbott does not particularise these people, and he does not say that Nechayev’s activities helped to generate the hostility to revolutionary terrorism, and radical chic, which possesses The Possessed. This can be numbered among the contradictions in the book. Retribution’s aphorisms may need to bring in Dostoevsky: but they may also need to keep a part of him out.

[*] Originally published by Hutchinson. Paperback: Arrow Books (1980), £1.95, 0 09 923060 7.