Thursday, August 11, 2016

Review: "On the Yard" by Malcolm Braly

One of my really odd niche obsessions when it comes to books and reading is prison. If a book is about prison or has scenes that take place in a prison, it is usually going to get a positive review from me. But I have never ever read anything like Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, easily the best prison novel I have ever read. No doubt, nothing I have read before even comes close, not even Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, which is a rather distant second, and I loved that book, so you can kind of gauge how I feel about this one. What makes it so great and what I feel has helped it stands the test of time (if not notoriety) is its unique and honest look at the prison system in the US. There are no political points to make in this book: it has little interest in the economic backgrounds or even the racial backgrounds of the characters it presents. They are there because they have had hard lives where a life of crime was the only life that made sense, or, as with quite a few of the inmates, they have committed a violent act in the heat of passion and have destroyed their lives. The only thing they share in common is their incarceration. And, surprisingly, that seems to be enough for most of these people. There are a few cases of violence, but they arise organically due to the system’s horizontal hierarchy, such as unpaid debts and favors dealt out. This is a book without heroes or villains, and without anyone to sympathize with. There are a few characters we see more than others, two being Chilly Willy, a career criminal who is the prison’s go to man for everything from cigarettes to opium, and who hides his money in a hollowed out broom, and Paul Juleson, a man in jail for killing his wife who struggles to stay human while devouring the prison library. There is a conflict between them, but it is so minor that what eventually happens is nearly impossible to assign blame to the projected guilty parties. But this story is much bigger than that. It reminded me a lot of Joshua Ferris’ novel Then We Came to the End, minutes the second person narration. The world Braly creates: the prison, described in a way that is recognizable to anyone in the outside world, is bigger than anyone character. There is Stick, whose creativity and psychosis leads to the books big action sequence. There’s Dr. Erlenmeyer, the prison shrink, whose presence is noble but ineffectual. There’s Sanitary Slim, the inmate with janitorial duties, who’s covered in acne despite his obsession with cleanliness and shining shoes (a grim sexual metaphor). And finally, there is Society Red, who bookends the story, whose rough demeanor hides a contemplative but lost soul. This is an eye opening and rather moving book about a necessary institution that inspires many negative emotions for all people, rendered with brutal honesty, intense clarity and stone brilliance. 

Rating: 5/5

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