Five years into his 23-year prison sentence, a prisoner ponders his life in this debut novel.
Arizona prisoner “Swede” Jörgensson, 55, panics during his custodial work. The bloodstains he’s washing away, he believes, simply keep reappearing. In addition to a good inner voice, a harsh inner voice—aka “the rat,” represented throughout the narrative in a bold and different font—urges Swede to get a grip: “Life is pain, ain’t it?” it tells him. Swede can’t fully hide his anxiety, however, so he attracts the interest of Doc, the prison psychologist, who encourages Swede to look back on his volatile life, which included a stint in Vietnam, multiple marriages, some business success, and now a 23-year prison sentence. Swede’s musings largely center on his childhood in a suburb near Chicago. He recalls various incidents, many sexual in nature, including seemingly consensual experimentations with neighborhood kids and his older sister. He also recalls working as a child alongside his bricklayer father, an abusive alcoholic who disappeared when Swede was a teenager. While deep into this remembrance, Swede receives visits from his mother and similarly damaged sister, bringing forth still more recollections and reference to “the other incident” that “we all promised to bury.” By novel’s end, the deepest horrors of Swede’s family surface, as does a body. Debut author Greene, a retired prison-inmate counselor, has written a dark and disturbing tale reminiscent of The Prince of Tides in its depiction of the suffering caused by trauma suppression. Greene’s saga is overly tangled, however, with a rather over-the-top parade of abusers and a murky explanation about why Swede is currently in prison. Still, there is plenty of power and pain in this engrossing read that also contains a sympathetic study of the kind of people seemingly bound for prison, underscored by a touching if brief side portrait of Swede’s sweet yet ill-named cellmate, Lucky.
Compelling if at times confusing tale of trauma, its attendant issues, and the prisoner psyche.