Rayfiel’s novel blends the pulpy with the philosophical as it tells the story of the isolated life of an imprisoned murderer.
Ethan Harms, protagonist and narrator of this unsettling novel, is not a pleasant man. He’s a murderer imprisoned in a Supermax facility alongside other murderers—including one whose book about his killings has made him a minor celebrity—and his interactions with the prison staff, his fellow inmates, and an academic studying the acts of killers make up the bulk of the novel. The book that results finds an uneasy balance between evoking an unquiet mind cut off from the rest of the world and narrating a series of over-the-top scenes of violence. Early on, for instance, one of Ethan’s fellow prisoners kills a man by spinning his head halfway around. Slowly, a number of plot threads take shape: The prison’s warden seeks Ethan’s assistance in obtaining information about an unsolved murder from another prisoner; the academic attempts to get Ethan to reckon with his past deeds; and Ethan attempts to unravel what has happened to his mother outside the prison walls. Rayfiel creates a powerful sense of isolation: As one character quips about the prisoners, “It’s like you’re in Plato’s cave or something.” But the tone wavers somewhat, and some suggestions late in the novel that Ethan may have experienced hallucinations—and thus may not be the most reliable of narrators—add an unwelcome layer of ambiguity to the proceedings. At times, the novel seems interested in exploring the toxic masculinity and broken upbringings of its characters and the horrific consequences of their actions; at others, it opts for a more grindhouse approach.
Rayfiel’s novel creates an ominous sense of the evil that men are capable of doing, but its tonal shifts sometimes trip it up along the way.