Book Review: Penitentiary Tales: A Love Story
Publication Date: Nov 12, 2019
List Price: $19.95
Format: Paperback, 362 pages
Imprint: Laughing Buddha Books
Publisher: Laughing Buddha Books
Parent Company: Laughing Buddha Books
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Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
When I was growing up, I heard about boys and girls, men and women from my Hood going to The Big House. One of the girls I dated had an inmate father who shot somebody for getting his boy started with dope. The first thing I noticed about this book was the quote by French novelist Gustave Flaubert: “One mustn’t look at the abyss, because there is at the bottom an inexpressible charm which attracts us.”
To look into the abyss is the description of reading this troubling novel by Luetkemeyer, a self-described outlaw-author who spent four years in the state pen after a marijuana conviction in the 1980s. Along with his memoir, his short fiction has been published in several magazines and his novels include Inside The Mind of Martin Mueller and The Outlaw Ethan James.
The main character, Dean Davis, from a good family, is dealing with his private demons. He’s rents a cottage in the upscale community of Sausalito, California. He dreams of having everything, great wife, baby, house, all of the creature comforts. But his wife, Lucy, thinks Dean’s going through a mid-life crisis. He has to confront the reality of his mother, who was in “a faculty for the chronically confused.” Now that he has been busted for possession of reefer in the Midwest, given ten years in Illinois State Prison.
With appeals lost on the case, Dean, aka Dante Allegro, is given two weeks to get his affairs in order. In 36 hours, he would surrender to a sheriff in Illinois and go to prison. He thought about going to Mexico but his wife and his children deserved better.
The author’s narrative voice is raw, fearless, and unflinching in its candor. Possibly the reason for this is that the writer never protects himself. He is in top form. In the book, he gives us clues how the writing is so clear-eyed and sharply etched, especially in the gonzo prison scenes. The writer kept a journal, full of character sketches, dialogue, incidents and anecdotes. All of these ingredients make for a reading an experience blending Iceberg Slim and Sherwood Anderson after dizzying session of magic mushrooms, meth, reefer, and hood-rat malt liquor.
Like the character of Wilbur, a prison griot who told tales of “dream states and delirium.” Luetkemeyer, an astute observer, writes it this way: “His stories were eclectic and bizarre: tales of animals that gave birth to humans and of humans who gave birth to animals; of mannequins that mated after the department store closed and gave birth to little mannequins; of plants and trees that uprooted themselves in the night and rearranged the forest floor; of a man and a dog who lived together and stared into each other’s eyes until they traded places and the man became the dog and sat at the feet of the dog who became the man…”
But in Lime Ridge State Penitentiary, the author cherry-picks a motley crew of characters: Andrew, Simon, Marvin Mayo, Choo Choo, Cletus, Randy Bone with his fetish for feces, and Brotha Botha with his view of the Divine. The authorities warn of unprotected sex and needle sharing, but the booty bandits still prey on the pretty white and brown boys, raping them until they wear diapers. It’s the underlying sense of menace, where gangs of every race clash, nitwits take on other psychos with shanks, the lack of freedom, the confining rules, the murderous guards who take bribes from the alpha males who desire some tender, young meat.
As his wife, Lucy, says, don’t let prison change you. But how can Dean not? Just the confinement of prison robs one of his humanity. He listens to the inmates returning to the cells, guards moving down the corridor closing and locking the doors. Even when they have visitors, the guards only allow inmates talk to their own visitors, no touching, and kissing only upon entering and leaving the room.
In a league with such prison novels such as Jack Abbott’s The Belly Of The Beast, Jean Genet’s Our Lady Of The Flowers, and Chester Himes’ Cast The First Stone, Luetkemeyer’s Penitentiary Tales excellently deals with the daily realities of incarceration, the needless violence, the forbidden sex, the unbridled cruelty to full effect. This is a hellish journey from damnation to rehabilitation to redemption. It’s a heart-stopping book which should have published on one of the mainstream imprints.