Sunday, June 01, 2008


I've only read a couple prison memoirs--Berkman's and Dostoevsky's--so I'm by no means an expert in the genre. Wideman's is interesting because it's a prison memoir written by someone who's not on the inside, in collaboration with his brother who is locked up for murder.

Lukie gave it to me as a birthday gift. She spent some time teaching prisoners who were working toward their GEDs. She even taught the guy who killed her sister's boyfriend. The prison in Brothers and Keepers is in Pittsburgh, which is her hometown, and where she worked. It's also where Berkman was incarcerated after shooting Frick.

Wideman is wrathful and indignant about the plight of his brother, who chose to play the street game and lost badly. There are seething passages about The Man and the fucked-up society which limits the choices of young urban youth, driving them to crime. But Wideman, who went to Penn and became a novelist and professor, knows his brother chose the path which took him behind bars. The book looks at how two young men with identical origins could have had such divergent fates.

Robby seems a decent chap, likeable and smart, and the murder in which he was involved is like a Tarrantino-scripted comedy of terrible errors. Nobody intended to hurt anybody, but somebody done got killed anyhow. My favorite parts of the book are those penned by Robby himself. Robby works towards an engineering degree and finishes it just before funding for the program is cut. He tries to be hopeful, but prisons unfortunately are designed to limit hope.

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