Goodwin’s potent debut drama is a series of stories about the U.S. rehabilitation system and how criminal acts affect the lives of inmates and victims alike.
In the book’s opening story, “Blank Slate,” neo-Nazi prisoner Ray Hazen seems beyond redemption. A violent man full of animosity, he’s pacified by the trauma he experiences after fellow inmates beat him severely. But even if Ray can’t remember his past atrocities, other prisoners and correctional officers can, and their mistreatment may cause him to rediscover his unsavory former self. Such is the theme among these stories: whether a convicted criminal can truly be vindicated. “Hater,” for example, follows racist Walker Calloway, who tries to start a life with a woman outside the prison walls, while Sarah in “One to One” faces inmate John Sloat, who raped her, and debates whether she should use the opportunity to kill him. Goodwin bolsters his collection by tying stories together not just thematically, but with characters and plotlines as well. Herbert Valentine, a psychiatrist at maximum security prison Orrington, crops up in several stories, sometimes merely as a supporting character. Other tales have even stronger links: the titular short story, which involves social worker Duane Case’s sessions with the four men on Orrington’s death row, is trailed by “The Victim’s Father,” about a man obsessed with retribution against his daughter’s killer—one of those death row inmates. The final two stories, “Unaccompanied Minor” and “Soul Mate,” take first-person perspectives of two criminals. The former’s protagonist is Jeff Zwerling, whose time in a hospital wing may lead to forgiving his neglectful father, while the latter, the longest of the collection, deals with the rather unsettling Keith Mueller, who sees nothing wrong in stalking a woman he doesn’t know. Despite the subject matter, Goodwin’s book isn’t nearly as bleak as readers may anticipate. Certainly there are instances of brutality, like inmates assaulting one another and prisoners’ unmitigated bigotry. But most stories leave room for hope; some even encourage it. The title story, in particular, has a final, eloquent image of a “pristine snowfall” “in the muffled silence of a winter day.”
A collection of prisoncentric stories that astonishes with its vibrancy and strong characters.