Prose and cons 

The tribulations of a captive audience

On the high seas of literary ambition, writers stir in contemptuous envy. Because in the chasm between viability and respectability, the word business is paved with questionable careers (paging Anne Tyler) and unsung heroes (Charles Portis, anyone?). The writers who will squirm the hardest this winter, however, are those who’ve preached the gospel of the written word in prison education programs. Certainly, many could have produced an insightful account of their experience bringing Kafka and Carver to the big house. Unfortunately, Theo Padnos got there first.

In the late 1990s, Padnos was a brooding Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. During a seminar on the symbolism of Flaubert’s bird droppings, he falls down on the floor in a fit of mocking laughter. His professor is not amused.

Rather than take the minor breakdown as a cue to look into other careers, he lingers in the academy until his financial aid runs dry. He then moves to his mom’s home in Vermont, and through want of work and a fascination with the violent crimes plaguing the countryside, finds his way inside the Woodstock County Correctional Facility to teach a non-credited class in American literature. Many, if not all, of his students are young, violent offenders. A botched burglary here, a matricide there, a chronic domestic violence perp. Not your mother’s book club.

My Life Had Stood A Loaded Gun is built on a solid foundation. It is a relevant, if overwrought, attempt to explore questions that prior to 9-11 ranked among the nation’s foremost quandaries: Why are so many young people committing violent crimes? What went wrong? How can they be reached?

Padnos is less interested in the phenomena in the aggregate than in how it plays out on his students and others within the milieu of the not-so-quaint New England lifestyle. Given his religious devotion to the redemptive power of language, he raises several worthwhile questions. Can literature further his students understanding of what led them to the trigger, the knife, the rape? Can it offer solace or even a glimpse of transformation?

The answer he finds, though he’s reluctant to admit it, is no. But with zeal known only to true believers (and supporters of Dennis Kucinich), he pushes novels onto an audience that is infinitely more interested in insulting one another, inserting pencils in their nostrils, and generally bemoaning their oppression at the hands of the Vermont Department of Corrections.

That such fervor is met with indifference offers an avenue for humor. But it’s hard to tell how much the author is in on the joke, fluctuating as he does between the noblesse oblige of a missionary teacher, a fascination with the Dostoevsky-esque dimensions of his students’ fates, and, worse still, a sycophantic fixation with their hardened masculinity.

As he writes of a certain sort of “intensely physical” Vermont dude:

“I’ve always thought that if somehow he could be stilled, if I could hang out with the guy in quiet conversation, he and I would get along well. Some of his toughness might rub off on me…And maybe I could do him some good as well—an Allen Ginsberg poem here, a Theodore Roethke poem there.”

A poetry for virility exchange? This would be hilarious if only he were kidding. Sadly, such ponderousness coupled with a staggering naïveté is par for the course. Most, if not all, of Padnos’s students are using his class to break the monotony of their cells, and craft an appearance of self-betterment that might one day impress a judge. That they prefer Stephen King to Kafka, or favor the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Kesey’s novel, seems to shock Padnos. He changes course, trying to find more relevant material, but by then he seems to have lost any semblance of authority.

Commandeering the respect, much less the attention, of people who lack experience with sophisticated books is not an enviable task. That Padnos keeps at it is admirable, particularly in that his street cred insolvency couldn’t be more glaring. Sadly, a huge portion of his classroom scenes are akin to witnessing a Milquetoast substitute teacher getting downed by a rowdy class. That is to say it’s both uncomfortable and embarrassing.

Granted, the author provides enough to keep reading, including portraits of young sociopaths and petty criminals who have forsaken the moral codes their parents and teachers have tried to instill in them. Take the case of Laird Stanard, who shot his mother and attempted the murder of his father. His acknowledgement of his crime is tacit, and he’s far more concerned with becoming the media’s next big anti-hero.

Instead of offering glimpses of connection between the author’s world of letters and the prisoner’s world of fear, hate, and nihilism, Padnos delivers lesson plans. An astonishing amount of his book is devoted to exegesis of the stories and novels he tries to teach. There’s much to commend in the attempt to transgress boundaries of class and merit. The instances where Padnos is reporting on his students, as opposed to his obsessions with them, outshines everything else.

In a country where prisons are a growth industry, reporting on life on the other side couldn’t be more vital. But for a project like My Life to be viable, one needs to show some inkling of connection to, or understanding of, the prison system and the individuals therein (for such an example, see Ted Conover’s Newjack). Padnos simply furthers the understanding of his own obsessions, and so has been conferred status as an NPR-flavor of the moment.

Film and music hits often spawn imitators; perhaps My Life might do the same. There’s a story to be told in the ruminative brew of books and bars, and hopefully someone will tell it.

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