A collection of jarring prison stories centers on Alcatraz.
Editors Keaton (Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead, 2015) and Clifford’s (Trouble in the Heartland, 2014, etc.) group of 19 crime tales is influenced by the historic, notorious Alcatraz Island penitentiary. In his witty, dynamic introduction, Keaton writes of being inspired by the iconic fortification soon after his relocation to California, where he discovered a basketball tournament held in the Alcatraz prison yard. “Combine an island with a prison, and you’ve got a recipe for mythmaking,” notes Keaton, who, along with this band of talented writers, seems bewitched and enchanted by the eerie, mysterious legend of The Rock. Author and New York radiologist Glenn Gray contributes the riveting opener, “Break,” narrated by a brittle-boned prisoner who commemorates his 1941 incarceration in Alcatraz with a contortionistic escape plan. Nick Mamatas’ taut, psychedelic “Being Whitey” channels a malevolent Whitey Bulger through the use of LSD, resulting in a trippy, imaginative treat. In “Dream Flyer,” Les Edgerton, an ex-con and award-winning author, evokes the frighteningly authentic voice of a tough convict eager for his day of reckoning. The volume derives much of its strength from the variety of its contents even while all of the stories orbit a common theme. Crime fiction author and Civil War buff Rory Costello offers a unique history lesson with his 1865-set tale “The Sympathizers,” as does Mark Rapacz’s “Bodhisattva Badass,” a hardcore, 1932-set meditation on bedeviled incarceration. The assortment is accented by a raw, edgy, historical photo collage of Alcatraz, which lends the book a spooky, grim spirit. Each story has merit, whether reflecting the solemn hopelessness of the concrete tomb or capturing the essence of the inmate experience. As none of the pieces approach novella length, readers can enjoy them in the amounts they choose. These tales—infused with raw characterizations, singular narrative voices, and fictionalized situations—vividly conjure the cynical chill of the prison experience. Closing out the anthology are novelist Rob Hart’s potent, food-themed yarn “The Gas Chamber”; Southern author Leah Rhyne’s gorgeous ballerina love song “The Music Box”; and Nick Kolakowski’s unvarnished glance at the institution, where one character, dubbed the “Man in Black,” laments that there’s “nothing good about a prison you can’t walk out of.” But these hardened tales demonstrate that Alcatraz certainly provides bracing entertainment.
An exquisitely moody, searing assemblage of tales, each distinctively contributing to the atmosphere and desperation of The Rock.