Friday 18 February 2011

Tim Willocks: Green River Rising

"Green River Rising is a stunner - and maybe the best prison novel ever"

James Ellroy

I don't normally give much credence to what one author says about another - it's usually overblown and/or anodyne - but in this case Ellroy may just be telling the truth.

Green River Rising doesn't so much kick you in the crotch as grab you there and twist without letting go. This is a book I'd be proud to have written - it'll never be called great literature but it's great writing.

Ray Klein, disgraced ex-doctor and karate expert (yes, TW in disguise) is incarcerated in the Green River Penitentiary. Convicted of rape of an ex-girlfriend, wrongly, though he feels enough guilt over the relationship that he almost argues guilt himself, Klein is about to be paroled. Unfortunately the prison governor, certifiably mad but refusing medication, has it in mind to test his twisted view of Bentham's panopticon theory.

To do this, he has engineered a riot of the most extreme nature. Setting white supremacists against blacks through devious plotting, with whole cell blocks planned for slaughter, an orgy of horrific violence is unleashed. The innocent, the guilty, all are caught in the maelstrom and must respond - die, kill or be killed, rise atop the chaos.

One of Willocks' main strengths as a writer is his ability to quickly sketch the histories and motivations of his characters. Thus we are horrified by their actions but that is tempered by an understanding of the forces, immediate and from their past, that have brought them to their position.

The violence flows like the river of the title; the literal river serves as a channel that tests the mettle of such heroes as this sort of book can have - the disgraced doctor, a murderous madman and a prison guard. Along the way we have (thanks to Willocks' theatrical experience) scenes of individual extremes, of group horror, of magnificent struggle.

If you have a strong stomach, buy this - you'll read it in one sitting. As a story of man's stupidity, cupidity and inbred violence, it stands alone. As an indictment of all that is wrong with such prisons (an almost unstated theme) it works well. As a tale of battle between evil and good that borders on evil, it'a a tour de force.


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