IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST: Letters from Prison by Jack Henry Abbott

IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST: Letters from Prison

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A mind that acquired ""the meat and bones of culture without the soup""--according to Norman Mailer, in his preface--Jack Henry Abbott got in touch with Mailer when the latter was writing The Executioner's Song. He knew Gary Gilmore slightly from being in the same Utah penitentiary, and knew the life of a prisoner far better: now 37, Abbott has been free only nine-and-a-half months since age twelve, and spent over ten years in solitary. In the long letters to Mailer gathered here, he describes how sensory deprivation--in the Hole--led him to ""empty intelligence,"" a gift for theory. He analyzes how a defiant prisoner is like a bull in a bull ring. And, most of all, he elucidates (because he is a strong, powerfully expository writer) a belief in action: ""People begin to really think and change for the better only if they are forced to experience things, whether good or evil."" Thus he's a romantic, a communist, an admirer of Russia and Cuba: ""Men have pled guilty to murder and have been executed without anyone asking them the simple question: Why? In no other country on the face of this earth do such injustices exist today. There is no tyranny this profound in any country but America."" Thousands of prisoners around the world could demur. But Abbott is writing within the framework of ""professional"" punishment--he, the convict, as the eternally punished; they the eternal punishers--and his defense against dehumanization is, ironically, the very thing which prompts oppression and injustice more than anything else: ideology. As a criminal savant, a thoroughly brutalized man, he can only imagine freedom as freedom to act in a straight line; ambiguities of practice escape him totally. The vision is raw and aggrieved, but also solipsistic, denatured--and given Abbott's gifts, pathetic too.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0679732373
Publisher: Random House