An unsettling account of trying to connect with inmates at a Vermont jail through a literature class.
A deeply unhappy graduate student seeking something beyond “a relatively narrow, officially approved life with officially approvable people,” newcomer Padnos in 1999 stakes a claim at the ratty world of the Woodstock Regional Correctional Facility, a waystation for those awaiting trial. Inmates don’t flock to his basement classroom, but there is a slow accrual of interest from the men, many of them quite young, who have been accused of committing unspeakable crimes. These crimes will be spoken of in grim detail that nearly makes a reader want to turn away in dread. But it is through their circumstances that Padnos comes to profile the students who sit in his classroom, where menace hangs in the air with greater weight than the words of Walt Whitman or Stephen King. Though he often hears the inmates’ stories through a prism of suspicion—trust appears to be a word with little application here—the author tries to keep jadedness at bay. The stories voice the men’s longings, he knows, even if those longings are apocalyptic in nature and substance. Padnos wants his students to find some reverb with the material, to stitch it together with what motivated their acts and what they had hoped to achieve by them: “The goal was to jerk them out of their routine, to help them see their lives with the clarity of an observer.” Often enough, this leads them deeper into the desperate. Huck Finn may be a universal icon, but what strikes home at Woodstock is the cold comfort of a Denis Johnson story. “Their lives have been rich in sorrow and strangeness,” Padnos writes of his students. “They’re wealthy at least in these departments.”
No ease anywhere, but the text conveys a dreamlike sense of standing outside oneself and observing that keeps things from getting too scary.