The murder of an inmate five years before casts a long shadow in this ambitious but unfocused drama set in a maximum security prison.
Marion Richardson, derisively called “Ego” (but not to his face), is the major of the guard at the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. “Someday I’m gonna be warden, and nothing’s gonna stop me,” he proclaims. His rise up the prison hierarchy is threatened by his involvement in the murder of inmate Earl Davis, which he orchestrated in the late 1960s. Five years later, Ego is the prison’s recently promoted security director, but his tenuous grip on command is shaken by the arrival of Shirleen, the prison’s new inmate complaint investigator. She is actually an undercover agent investigating Davis’ death; she’s Davis’ sister, too. Had Smullen focused solely on the malevolent Ego, the book might have been a more gripping character study. Ego at times makes Lou Ford, the depraved deputy sheriff in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), look like Andy Taylor from Mayberry. But Smullen subverts the pitiless Ego with jarring scenes of him folding under pressure. Taking a phone call from a lawyer with blackmail on his mind causes Ego to feel “as if some supernatural creature had just ripped out his heart, encased it in ice, and then reinserted it into his chest in one hideously swift move.” Smullen has grander designs on his narrative, too. Transitioning from present to past with unnumbered, italicized segments between chapters, Smullen chronicles the creation of the prison and its earlier days, which were no less corrupt or violent. Ego’s inevitable downfall is counterpointed by the redemption story of Zak Griffin, an alcoholic Vietnam vet who falls in love with Shirleen. Smullen, who spent nearly three decades as an educator in the Wisconsin state prison system, writes convincingly about prison life, as in an episode in which Ego’s cellblock arrival is announced among the population by a succession of flushing toilets. The dialogue, like something out of a direct-to-video prison movie (“What do ya want—we should cut our hands and become blood brothers? I hafta trust you and you hafta trust me”) is less convincing.
An extended drama that should satisfy fans of the genre.