All my major works have been written in prison. I would recommend prison not only to aspiring writers but to aspiring politicians, too. —Jawaharlal Nehru
Penitentiary Tales: a Love Story recounts the escapades of Dean Davis, a thirty-something, educated, straight white male from the affluent community of Sausalito, in Marin County, California, who is sent to an Illinois prison dominated by a daunting, ethnically diverse population of inmates from the mean streets of Chicago. How does he do his time? What challenges does he meet? How does the experience affect his social and political consciousness? Addressing issues of race and gender, it is at once a serious inquiry into the minds and hearts of the marginalized and the oppressed and a bit of a romp. It will appeal to adventurous and intelligent readers of all persuasions who appreciate a literary walk on the wild side.
Excerpts From Arcadia
Wherein our protagonist, Dean Davis, arrives at a holding facility to be processed while awaiting assignment to a permanent institution.
The Best Laid Plans
I OPENED MY LOCKER AND REMOVED my bag of books. I looked at each in turn and read its title and remembered when and where I had read it, then tossed it into the center of my bunk: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; Graham Green’s A Burnt-Out Case; Nelsen Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side; Albert Camus’s The Stranger; Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night; J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians; Paul Bowles’ Let it Come Down; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Nietzsche’s Will to Power, and Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I had grabbed them off the shelf without thinking, when packing to surrender, figuring the chance of finding a good book where I was going was low, but I wondered now if the selections were random after all. They seemed to have in common the theme of alienation from society, the Outsider motif, which was at odds with my newfound urge to engage with life. I couldn’t choose; they were yesterday’s news. I looked up and saw the black inmate on the top bunk across the aisle staring at me. He waived a book around and yelled something that was lost in the noise of the room. I motioned him over. He climbed down from his bunk, crossed the aisle and came up alongside me. He was short. His hair was slicked back and shiny like that of a ‘50s Motown artist. He sported a matchstick-thin mustache and one of his two front teeth was gold. The word dapper occurred to me.
Trade you for a book, he said.
He handed me a dog-eared paperback: Pimp, The Story of my Life, by Iceberg Slim.
What’s it about? I said.
Bout a brother name of Robert Beck who was raised up by his mamma in Chicago. He went to College but he really wanna be a pimp, so he go to pimp school on the streets and gets a degree in whorology. He a chump and a chili ass pimp till he get his coattails pulled by Sweet, the top spade pimp in the country, the Master Mack of all time!
He pronounced of all time the way Mohammad Ali famously described himself as The Greatest. He continued his recap of Pimp.
Sweet tell my man he gotta be icy cold like the inside of a dead whore’s pussy, so he change his name to Iceberg Slim. Soon he got a fine stable of bitches. Got a tall pile a scratch. Got a new shiny hog. Got vines cost two hundred slats apiece. But like my man say: A pimp’s fame is as fleeting as an icicle under a blow torch. One day he find himself in the penitentiary, forty-three years old, ain’t got shit to show for all them years of pimpin, so he decide to square up and get his life right. Ol boy get out the joint, move to California and write this book.
I opened the book at random and read:
Nigger, you’re pretty, but a bleach cream will never be invented that will make you white. So, pimp your ass off and be somebody with what you got. It could be worse, you could be an ugly nigger.
I had taken Black Literature courses at San Francisco State—Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison—but Iceberg Slim wasn’t on the curriculum.
All right, I said. Pick a book.
He scrambled up onto my bunk. He looked at the books and frowned.
Pick one for me, he said.
I picked Of Mice and Men.
What’s it about? he said.
The title is a line from a poem: The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. It’s about planning a better life for yourself.
He climbed down off my bunk. He held out his hand.
Lamar Johnson, he said. I plan to be a pimp.
Dean Davis, I said. I don’t have a plan.
Lamar shook his head.
Brother, you don’t know where you goin, you gone wind up someplace else!
I looked around the room.
I’ll keep that in mind, Lamar, I said. Where do I get coffee?
We make store on Thursday, he said. You got money on the books you can buy what you want. Mud, squares, whams and zooms.
What are those?
Coffee. Cigarettes. Snacks like soda pop and Twinkies.
I’ve got money on the books, I said, but I need coffee now.
Got to trade for somethin.
Don’t have anything.
Lamar went to his locker and returned with a styrofoam cup half full of instant coffee.
When you make store, he said, hook me up with a pack of squares. Double Os.
What are double Os?
It’s a deal, I said.
He handed me the mud. He needed the cup back. I tore a square of paper from the bag in which I’d brought my books, folded it into an envelope, poured the coffee flakes into the envelope and gave Lamar his cup. He returned to his bunk with his book. I made a little wedge of a spoon from a strip of the paper and spooned a pile of the brown flakes into my cup and filled the cup with hot water from the tap at the back of the pen. I clambered onto my bunk and cracked open Pimpby Robert Beck, alias Iceberg Slim. I was soon immersed in another world: the mean streets of the Windy City, Chicago, circa 1930s and ‘40s, the world of the black pimp, a time of spats and slats and derby hats; of Billie Holiday & Billy Eckstein; of Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole, Zoot Sims, Charlie Bird Parker; of Packards & Duesenbergs, and Maggie & Jiggs comic books. When I looked up from the book and rubbed my eyes and looked around the cellblock, I felt I was emerging from one dream and entering another, the gauzy curtain between them no more substantial than the smoky haze that hung in the air. I tried to remember the sights and sounds of the life I’d left behind: the golden hills of the Marin headlands; the fog rolling in beneath the Golden Gate Bridge; the white caps on the water; the twinkling nightscape of San Francisco seen from across the bay; the pretty face of Lucy, the light in her almond eyes; her long legs, her dimpled derriere; the soft sweet breath of Lola—but these, too, seemed like the smoky tendrils of a dissipating dream. I had the disquieting sense of embarking in a flimsy craft on a foggy sea to a distant, foreign shore.
I SKIPPED THE MORNING MEAL. By noon I’d finished Pimp. I was impressed that when Beck sat down to write his book, he had something to say. That if he had become a writer first and gotten his degree from Tuskegee and read lots of books filled with the fine writing of others and foregone the pimping game and never known the streets, he’d have become just another brilliant genius wordsmith with nothing real to write about. I felt fortunate to have read the book here in Arcadia, where the characters who peopled its pages milled around me in the flesh.
THAT BITCH! THAT JAZZY JIVE WHORE! My man Iceberg would’ve put his foot up her funky ass before he turned her out on the street!
Lamar tossed Of Mice and Men onto my bunk. He continued his rant.
That sissy bitch, Curly, he better never ever go to East St. Louis! They’ll turn his pussy ass out in a minute! And that lame-ass, George, why he gotta pop a cap on the ass of his own road doggie? He shoulda shot Crooks! That sorry-ass, busted-back, slop-totin nigger, sleepin in the barn like an animal and kissin the white man’s ass! He better never go to East St. Louis, too!
I smiled. Lamar’s point of view was not one to be heard in a Modern American Literature class.
How’d you like Pimp, Davis? he said.
I liked it a lot, I said. I liked how Beck did it his way, even if he lost it all in the end. I liked how he squared up after, and wrote a good book about it. But I didn’t like how he made his money off women who don’t feel good about themselves till they’ve got a foot up their ass. But that’s just me. So, Lamar, how come you want to be a pimp if your man Iceberg decided it was a sick life and he squared up?
Can’t square up off somethin I ain’t did yet! Lamar said.
Makes sense, Lamar, I said.
I could relate. Like Beck, I’d done it my way. I could hardly discourage Lamar from doing the same.
What else you got to read, Davis? he said.
You might like this, I said.
I handed him For Whom the Bell Tolls.
What’s it about? he said.
It’s about a man named Robert Jordan who sacrificed his life for a bunch of wine-swilling gypsies.
Lamar’s eyes narrowed.
Sound like a chump thing to do, don’t it, Davis?
It wasn’t something he planned on doing, Lamar, but shit happens.
Lamar’s gold tooth flashed.
Ain’t that a natural fact!
I THRUST MY HANDS DEEP into the pockets of my old blue overcoat and crunched my way down the snow-encrusted sidewalk next to Billy Odum Jr., the inmate who’d slammed the phone down the day I arrived. A thirty-something white guy looking beat up by life—blonde hair thin and greasy; nose broken and bent to the side; lips a twisted snarl—he muttered to himself that it was colder than a witch’s tit! He and I and half a dozen other men were led by a sullen guard in a green woolen uniform to a low brick building over the door of which a wooden sign read CLINIC. Inside, another half-dozen men sat on benches in a crowded foyer. We took our places and waited. In the corner was a kerosene stove cranking out heat. In spite of the cold outside, the room was stifling hot. Behind a counter, a hard-looking woman in white, her blonde hair ratted and sprayed, perused papers and puffed on a long, thin cigarette. Smoke hung in the air. On the left side of the counter, a plastic radio played the Statler Brothers’ Flowers on the Wall. The guard removed his hat and rested his elbows on the counter.
How about a cup of that good fresh Folgers, Marge? he said.
Down a hallway to the back of the building a second guard leaned against the wall, drinking coffee. In the corner opposite the kerosene heater was a dusty water cooler. Crushed paper cups littered the floor. On the wall next to the cooler a sign read: No Smoking!
We were handed a clipboard holding a form that queried our medical history. Beneath the form a flyer warned of the danger of sharing needles and from having sex with one’s fellow prisoners. A young, slightly-built black inmate with pleated hair scowled.
They blame that AIDS shit on a motherfuckin monkey from Africa! he said.
A second black inmate, wearing a blue denim baseball cap, nodded in agreement.
It’s the fuckin CIA, man!
The first inmate concurred.
It’s a motherfuckin honkie conspiracy!
The guard at the counter turned and glared. The inmate in the baseball cap glared back. He took off the cap and put it on backwards.
Turn the cap around, Slim, the guard said.
Ain’t this a bitch! the inmate said.
He turned the cap around and folded his arms.
Gimme a square, man, he said to the first inmate, who pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
Hey, can’t you read? The guard said. No smoking!
Fuck that, the inmate said, and lit his cigarette.
Can the butt, slim! The guard said.
The inmate looked behind the counter at the woman in white.
The bitch be smokin! he said.
The woman gave him a dirty look, then glanced at the guard. The guard stiffened and called down the hallway.
The guard at the end of the hall came into the waiting room.
Outside, slim, the first guard said. Let’s go!
Fuck you, screw! the inmate said, and took a drag off his cigarette.
Both guards advanced. The inmate took a step back. The first guard took him by the elbow. The inmate jerked away.
Get your goddamn honkie hands off me, peanut-butter-neck motherfucker!
Each guard grabbed a wrist of the inmate with one hand, put the other under his arm, and lifted him off the floor. He struggled and yelled to the men on the bench.
Y’all gone let these cracker motherfuckers put me in check?
No one paid attention. He was carried out the door. Soon the guards returned without him and took their respective posts.
I shifted on the bench. Sweat streamed from my armpits, down my ribcage, into my trousers. Periodically, an inmate emerged from the hallway and took a seat, and I would hear a shout in an Asian accent: Nexa! Nexa! Then a plump young woman in white, pleasing to the eye in a wholesome country sort of way, would enter the room and call out a name. All eyes were upon her as she came and went. A young black inmate bragged—under his breath, not to be overheard by the guard at the counter—If I had that fine, white bitch in my crib, I’d be layin me some tall pipe, Jack! The white inmate next to him, long in the jaw and waxen-faced, wet his lips and drawled, If I rammed my piston up that tight young pussy, she’d be squealin like a stuck pig!
My name was called. I followed the young nurse down the hall. I watched how her corn-fed derriere undulated beneath her white cotton uniform like soccer balls in a canvass bag. How, with every step, her calves bunched beneath her white nylon hosiery.
She led me to a small room outside of which the guard, Johnny, stood post.
Sit there, she said, nodding toward an examining table. And roll up your sleeve.
She tied a rubber tube around my bicep and told me to make a fist. She slapped the crook of my arm and deftly slid a syringe into my pulsing blue vein. She kept her eyes on the syringe as it filled with my blood, while I kept my eyes on the buttons of her tunic as they strained to harness the wholesome plenitude of her bosom. I smelled her warm breath, her shower soap; noted the black at the roots of her blondness; the light, white layer of powder, hopefully applied; the thin black line of mascara, carefully drawn; her serious pursed lips. She never once looked at me. I am nothing to her, I thought. A nobody. A bug. I wanted to shout: I’m not like the others! I could show you the world! But in her mind, I knew, I was the same. And no doubt she was seeing all the world she could handle at this point in her simple life. I imagined she was married to the former captain of the high school football team, who might well be a Correctional Officer here in Arcadia, and they afforded a fine little white frame house on their combined salaries, and tooled around on week-ends in his renovated red Malibu, him still showing her off, she attending the local junior college to get further certified, him drinking Busch Bavarian beer with his buddies, ex-high school football teammates, while they watched the games on Sunday—at his place because he has a new fake wood laminated wet bar with a phony stained-glass Tiffany lamp overhead—and they count down to the super-bowl, while he drinks more and more, and likes his life less and less, till one day he hits her and she leaves and raises the kids alone in a trailer, and the youngest son, his pride and joy, grows up angry and confused and burgles and robs to support his methamphetamine habit, and gets busted and sent to the joint still pimply-faced, and gets fucked in the ass by some mean black motherfucker from Chicago, maybe the same one that the guards today had sent to the hole for lighting up in the clinic when after all the bitch behind the counter be smokin, too!
She slid the needle from my vein and swabbed the hole with alcohol and sealed it with a Band-Aid. Put your finger here, she said. Bend your arm, she said. Take off them bib overalls and shorts, she said, and put on this here gown. Tie it in the back. The doctor will be here in a minute.
She closed the door behind her.
I stripped and hopped back onto the waxed-paper covered table in which the butt prints of previously examined inmates remained pressed. The door opened. In came a small doctor in a white frock, a stethoscope around his neck, wearing thick glasses that magnified the orbs of his eyes grotesquely. He cupped my balls in the palm of his small hand and commanded: You cough!
He held a flat stick with one hand and put the fingertips of the other on my lower lip.
I opened my mouth. He pressed my tongue with the stick and peered down my throat.
He put the plugs of the stethoscope in his ears and put the cold steel medallion of it on my bare chest. He pulled the plugs from his ears.
Good healthy! he declared. Live long time!
He closed the door behind him.
Back in my cell, I wondered what had brought the good doctor from the rice fields of Asia to the cornfields of middle America. Had he fled a repressive government? Did he come over on a boat? Did he have a wife and kids? Did they shop at Wal-Mart? Did the local farm boys punch his kids in the face?
There had to be a story there, and I liked a good story.
I put my hands on my stomach. Good healthy, like hell! I pondered my true physical condition: liver long abused by liquor and a litany of controlled substances; brain cells burnt and lost to the void for all time like cinders up a chimney; twenty-five pounds of fat too many; back stiff, poor muscle tone and no aerobic capacity. Well, I was in the right place to change all that. I dropped to the floor and knocked out twenty push-ups. My stomach touched the floor before my chest did, so I turned over and did twenty sit-ups. I felt conspicuous, but no one paid attention.
Excerpt From The Boys on the Block
Wherein Dean Davis is assigned to Lime Ridge State Penitentiary, a medium-security facility perched high on a cliff above the banks of the Muddy Mississippi, and is introduced to a few of the folks who will be his friends and neighbors for a long, long time.
Be Like Botha
IN THE EVENING OF MY FIRST DAY in North One, I sat at a table in the smoky day room pretending to read the prison newspaper, Prose & Cons. I cast cautious glances at the fraternity of men who would be my friends and neighbors for the next few years.
At the table to my left, two black inmates, one portly and bald, the other slight, his hair flattened back and shiny, were absorbed in a game of Chess. The portly one addressed his partner.
Quincy, you gonna move a piece fore the middle of next week?
Move when I be ready to move, Lloyd, Quincy said without looking up from the board.
Goddam, Quincy, a nigger could do his time, come back for another crime, fore you be ready!
Lloyd, how a man sposa think with you steady runnin your mouth?
Jus move somethin, turtle ass motherfucker!
In the center of the room sat a shirtless, muscular African American as dark and sculpted as my teakwood bar at home. A threadbare white towel covered his shoulders like a cape. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and stared at the floor between his feet. I felt his smoldering intensity, like heat waves off a two-lane blacktop road in the summertime. Hovering about him, a cinnamon-skinned inmate with blue eye shadow and rosy cheeks braided his hair in tight rows.
Oh, you gonna love this, honey, he cooed like a dove. You gonna be so handsome!
I recognized him as the one I had first seen from the fish line in the chow hall, a Whitney Houston look-alike who would have fooled me in a bar on the street, especially after a few drinks.
At a table to my right, four men played cards. The white one among them, his shaved head milky white and misshapen as a potato, his back a crude blue mural of demons, dragons and snakes, jumped up suddenly and slammed a card into the center pile.
Trump that, Cooba, you cocksucker! You little spic!
A plump little Latino inmate with a fine line of facial hair encircling his lips and chin, wearing long-john bottoms and high-top tennis shoes, glared at the pile.
Ain dees a beetch, mon! he said.
On the far side of the room, bolted high up the cinder block wall, a television blared. A long haired white inmate stood on a folding chair flipping channels. Inmates seated below shouted their preferences.
Play The Jeffersons, motherfucker!
No, Charlie’s Angels!
Man, fuck them holes! The Bulls playin Boston in the Garden at eight.
An inmate with a towel wrapped around his head like a turban yelled in the direction of the card table.
Yo, Simon, what time it is, man?
Receiving no response, he yelled louder.
Simon! What time it is!
Simon responded while keeping his eyes on his hand.
Why you wanna know what time it is, Andrew? There some place you gotta be?
Just what time it is, man, c’mon!
Time a bitch! Time a funky ho!
Simon, goddam! On your watch, nigger! What time it is!
Time a river! Time a sea! Time drown a nigger like you or me!
Oh, now you a motherfuckin poet!
I can bust a rhyme.
You can bust a rhyme, but you can’t tell time, sucker, so go fuck yourself!
Andrew turned back round and nudged the inmate next to him.
Gimme a square, Darnell.
Darnell slid a cigarette pack from his blue denim shirt pocket without taking his eyes from the television.
Shit, Andrew said, Y’all ain’t got no Double Os?
What you see is what you get, sucker, said Darnell.
Andrew took a cigarette from the pack, put it between his lips, took two more and slipped them into his shirt pocket.
Gimme some fire, Darnell, he said.
Darnell slid a plastic lighter from his pocket and handed it to Andrew.
You want me to smoke it for you, too? he said.
Andrew lit his cigarette. He looked around the floor at his feet.
Yo! Rhymin Simon, he yelled toward the card table. Slide me that butt can over here!
On the floor by Simon’s feet was a coffee can painted red.
What’s the magic words, Andrew?
Magic words is, You wanna die, motherfucker?
Uh huh, fool, now you gotta come get this can!
Simon, Andrew moaned, why you make me get up when you right there by the motherfucker? Slide me that can over here, brother, goddamn!
Simon stuck a leg out and shoved the butt can toward Andrew. It slid across the polished concrete floor, clipped the leg of Andrew’s chair and flipped over, spilling inky black water and soggy butts onto his bare feet.
Goddam, nigger! he shouted. Lookee what you done did, man!
He yelled across the room to where an elderly, light-skinned black man with a patch of hair like dirty snow sat holding a mop.
Hey, Sylvester, bring that mop over here!
The old man looked up. His head bobbed like a cork in a stream.
Get your sorry ass over here, pops!
The old man shuffled over, dragging his mop behind him.
Mop up this mess, pops!
The old man swished the mop in the mess, lapping sodden ashes onto Andrew’s bare feet.
Shit, pops, you moppin my feet, fart ass motherfucker!
He shoved the old man, who stumbled and nearly fell.
I wanted to bop the back of Andrew’s head with the mop handle. He was smaller than me. But I knew it was not my place. The culture of the camp was crude, it was in your face, but changing it was not an option. I could only change myself. But wasn’t change what I had promised Lucy I would not do?
At that moment, through the D Wing door, strode a tall, slim black inmate clutching a thick black book at his side. His blue cotton pants and work shirt were freshly cleaned and pressed, his black leather shoes buffed to a sheen, his hair cropped short, appearing almost to have been painted on. His round rimless glasses gave him a learned look. He might have come out of the Marvelous Marvin Mayo School of Impeccable Grooming. He walked to the cluster of inmates beneath the television.
Brother Andrew, he said with a chastising tone, why you shove that old man like he a dog? Don’t he have enough burden in this mortal world without your help?
He alright. Ol boy ain’t dead, is he?
Brother, you’ll be old and infirm your own self someday. Let’s pray folks don’t be pushing youinto an early grave!
Andrew looked back at the television. The old man dragged his mop to the corner, where he sat and pawed at his face as though to remove some fine invisible stuff that clung to it. The tall inmate walked to the center of the room and addressed the muscular inmate having his hair coiffed.
Evening, Brother Botha, he said.
I ain’t your brother, Pinklon, Botha said without looking up.
Look like you getting all dressed up for the bright lights on the boulevard, Pinklon said. Guess in a minute you be pimping whores and slamming Cadillac doors!
Botha regarded Pinklon with a baleful look, then resumed his scrutiny of the floor between his feet. Pinklon looked at the inmate braiding Botha’s hair.
Brother Botha, why you let this freak put his hands on you? What did the Prophet Mohammed say about men lying down with men?
The Prophet Mohammed can kiss my black ass! Botha said.
Pinklon shook his head in mock dismay.
Such bitter and blasphemous words, my brother!
I done told you I ain’t your motherfucking brother!
We are all brothers in the bosom of Allah, my brother.
Botha jumped up. The towel slipped from his shoulders. He poked a finger into Pinklon’s chest.
Allah don’t mean shit to me, nigger! And you are not my Imam! You are Pinklon! Pinklon the Punk! I rode with you when you were the man. Now you can’t wipe your own black ass without Allah saying when and where. So don’t talk to me, nigger. I ain’t your boy. I’m a straight up gangster, and I’ll be a gangster till the day I die! I smoke dope. I fuck freaks. I eat swine. And I kill motherfuckers who get in my bidness. And you … are in … my bidness.
The guard in the control room put down his paperback book.
Gentlemen, he drawled, let’s don’t be getting physical or the whole house will be locked down and you two hombres will spend the night in the hole.
Fuck you, too, Hopalong Cassidy motherfucker!
He turned back around to face Pinklon, who pressed the Koran to his own chest and bowed slightly, keeping a wary eye on his adversary’s glowering face.
I meant no disrespect, he said. I leave you in peace. A salaam a laikam.
He exited the dayroom. Botha watched him go. He glared around the room. Everyone who had witnessed the exchange now looked away—except me. I was riveted, struck by the force of his malice, transfixed by his face, a warrior’s face, adorned by a scar from his temple to his chin, like a string of knots beneath the skin. What vagaries of fate had fashioned a man so bitter, yet so unambiguous? A man who knew what he was about, as I did not. Killing motherfuckers who got in his business notwithstanding, I would do well to be like Botha. He caught me staring.
What the fuck are youlookin at?
I blinked. The spell was broken.
Nothing, I said. I’m not looking at anything.
You better find you some bidness!
I can do that.
Find it and mind it!
I turned around. I felt his glare through the back of my head, like the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass. I attempted to read from Prose & Consbut the words were meaningless, while six words shone like a beacon of light: You better find you some bidness!
Praise For Penitentiary Tales: A Love Story
“an insightful and at times darkly disturbing glimpse into an institution rarely entered by most readers…compelling and realistic…filled with vivid character descriptions…[Penitentiary Tales: a Love Story] is a fictionalized account of a pivotal period in the life of the author…through his wit, insight, athletic prowess, bravado, and luck, [protagonist Dean Davis] is able to navigate successfully between racial gangs, the administration, the guards, and otherwise dangerous individuals in order to survive and to thrive… Much like Erving Goffman’s portrayal of total institutions… [Luetkemeyer] reveals a common theme among inmates, and one that I discovered in my own prison research: all incarcerated individuals (and perhaps all of us) operate behind…protective masks, preserving a part of one’s self-identity only for one’s closest intimates”
—Dr. John M. Coggeshall, Clemson University School of Anthropology
“Bold prison tales…from the perspective of a white drug dealer serving time in a state penitentiary…with an emphasis on the eccentricities of other inmates… [Luetkemeyer’s] self-assured visceral approach…is unflinchingly abrasive when capturing the realities of prison… readers will appreciate the testosterone-fueled language”
“a work of literary fiction…set in an Illinois prison filled with…[racially diverse] inmates from the difficult and dangerous streets of Chicago…an intriguing and committed character study that effectively explores the social and political consciousness of the current class and racial divides in modern-day America…nuanced and personal…contains graphic depictions of violence, sex, and distressing situations, and…explicit language appropriate to its context…the scenes we move through…stick in the mind and the social conscience of the reader long after the scene is through…a well written and poignant dramatic novel which comes highly recommended.”
—K.C. Finn, Fallow Heart
“Dean Davis…came from an affluent family and had his life under control…[until] he is sentenced to prison in Illinois [and] will now have to fight every day of his sentence …packed with emotions, drama and the struggle of a man who…learned about life in the hardest way possible…the reader [will] experience what Dean was going through…an amazing job at writing an impactful story.”
—Readers’ Favorite, 5-Star Review
“Penitentiary Tales: a Love Story…is a cross-examination of social inequalities in race and gender…Dean Davis, an educated white male [is] doing time for dealing marijuana…How a highly literate convict manages to survive makes for a brilliant depiction of how the human spirit can triumph under the most adverse conditions…Luetkemeyer [demonstrates] that love can spring forth…in a setting that hardens criminals but softens our hearts to miracles.”
—Vincent Dublado, The Weed and the Rose
“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. His short fiction has been published in several magazines, he is the author of the memoir The Book of Chuck andthe novel Inside The Mind of Martin Mueller, and is knee-deep in a new novel, The Outlaw Ethan James.
The main character, Dean Davis, from a good family, is dealing with his private demons. He’s rented 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 he has been busted for possession of reefer in the Midwest and given ten years in an 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 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, Randy Bone with his fetish for feces, Brotha Botha, a straight up gangster, and Abdul 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 to talk to their own visitors, no touching, and kissing only upon entering and leaving the room.
In a league with such prison novels 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.
African American Literature Book Club
A fascinating glimpse into prison life and a great reminder of the diversity as well as the social issues that still run rampant in life.
This book is an eye-opener. We so often forget that people who are different from us are human too. In this book, we get a glimpse of some of the people that occupy the space behind bars. We are introduced to a wide cast of characters throughout the book, a few who slip from the mind until reminded. Even so, most of them are vivid characters that possess unique personalities such as Mother Goose, Botha and so on. All of these characters have their own motives, their goals and their truths which show us that contrary to what we are led to believe, they are very human too. We are shown that they are not all beefy thugs that beat up each other or resent each other all the time (as what many movies depict). There is some resentment, and they do fight, but there are also inmates that are confused as to why they’re doing time behind bars, those who are waiting patiently to be let out, those who don’t want to pick a fight… and even the ones who do want to fight, many of them are less fortunate than us, having to tough it out on the streets with no permanent place to call home.
Life in prison can be wildly surprising too. Drawing from personal experience, E.A. Luetkemeyer includes transposed versions of events that happened while he was doing 4 years behind bars. There are welding lessons, play rehearsals, interviews among inmates and a wide variety of other pastimes and hobbies. Of course, there is also the constant lurking sense of danger that can come when you don’t control your tongue or monitor your behavior in the presence of other inmates.
…this book flows well and reads wonderfully. What makes this book so colourful and gripping is…its fascinating set of characters and Dean Davis’ unbiased, natural narration. The narration is honest and straightforward enough without being a bore, embellished now and then by some description that further enhances the storytelling. The characters vary and are diverse, and that Dean Davis’ voice is clearly expressed throughout ensures that he isn’t swamped by the other characters, becoming a clear central point throughout the book. The social issues mentioned in this book are also food for thought, all of which still happen and are most troubling.
For anyone looking for a read that gives you a different perspective of prison life and has multiple viewpoints on topics of race, sexuality and so on (although beware of explicit scenes), then you should give this book a chance.
This unlikely novel was initially ventured with apprehension. I’m an intellectual who trends towards urban fiction for kicks. When a Caucasian author depicts Black characters in a prison setting, I impulsively clutch the invisible dreadlocks I cut off years ago and prepare to sing a Kendrick Lamar refrain. Usually, such portrayals are rooted in one-dimensional caricatures like those synonymous with 1970s Blaxploitation films, but as the pages turned, I quickly embraced EA Luetkemeyer’s attention to detail and his intentional nuances.
Black inmates like Botha, Stan the Man, and Mother Goose were just as flawed and multilayered as their White counterparts, Berserker, Wilbur, and Dr. Dick. I also saw possible etymological influences of prison slang on the language of the streets while digesting the mini sagas embedded throughout. By the time I made it to the end, I felt like my reading experience was equally entertaining and educational in terms of prison and the imprisoned. “Penitentiary Tales: A Love Story” by EA Luetkemeyer allows you to enter hell and return unscathed.
Released in 2019 by Laughing Buddha Books, Luetkemeyer risked a no-holds-barred look at a world that is mostly out of sight and out of mind to the American public. In this insightful jail-tale, the illusion of the American Dream surrendered to the reality of an American Nightmare – a shadowy prison-culture that operated autonomous of mainstream society.
In a brief provided by Amazon.com, “’Penitentiary Tales: A Love Story’ recounts the escapades of Dean Davis, a thirty-something, educated, straight white male from the affluent community of Sausalito, in Marin County, California, who is sent to an Illinois prison dominated by a daunting, ethnically diverse population of inmates from the mean streets of Chicago. His wife Lucy and infant daughter Lola await on the outside. Lucy pleads that Dean not let the experience change him, that he be the same man when he gets out that he was when he went in. ‘I’ll be a ship in the night,’ he assures her. ‘Just passing through. When I walk out those gates in five years it will be as though I had never been there.’ But he doubts if this is true.”
The San Francisco Bay area author illustrated the incessant sensory overload that constantly bombarded inmates. The angry ambience of ill noises added a layer of distraction to an already incoherent enclosure of concrete. Boomboxes constantly blared hip hop, rock n roll, and everything in between – from Frank Sinatra to Steve Wonder. Inmates constantly bickered, argued and verbally threatened each other as the respected mode of communication. Added to that cacophony was the constant threat of racial riots and sexual subjugations. It’s prison folks, who invited Emily Post?
Consistent with prison culture, there are threats of abuse and/or rape, and an abundance use of the n-word. The latter begs one to wonder if that usage is the character’s ignorance or the writer’s subtle respect lack? The dialogue between characters was devoid of quotation marks – possibly a nod to an author referenced in the book, Cormac McCarthy, who was known for his lack of punctuation. These unmarked conversations between the characters ebbed and flowed seamlessly with the narration. It took getting used to, but the lack of quotation marks did not take away from this story.
Central to the plot, and perhaps an autobiographical “peek,” main character Davis immerses himself in personal literary pursuits like journaling and writing stories. His love of the written word affords the opportunity to be introduced to the works of Iceberg Slim and interviewing various inmates regarding their candid views on homosexuality for a professor who taught anthropology at the correctional facility. And although the prison cells were stagnant and static in purpose, their occupants were constantly coming and going – sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by death and old age, but rarely with warning. They were moved around as easily as cards being reshuffled in a deck.
Luetkemeyer deftly used a series of interconnected short stories to give a captivating look at life on the inside. For those who are curious, there is a lot to be learned from this work of fiction. For better or for worse, the complexities of homosexuality, racial segregation, and various methods of escapism are given a literary spotlight. The author’s own four-year-bid in an Illinois prison in the 1980s brought authenticity to the story while earning an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA ensured quality storytelling. Together, the school of hard knocks and the halls of academia, perfectly served “Prison Tales.”
The Miami Times