BOOK REVIEW / Whiskey, rape and the river to hell: 'Green River Rising' - Tim Willocks: Cape, 14.99 pounds

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THERE is a romance to the American outlaw - a legacy of individuality and mythic frontiers - that is sadly lacking in our own heritage of class-bound villainy. One thinks of Raymond Chandler's progress from public school privilege to Californian corruption, or Hitchcock's treacherous excursion into Tinseltown's shadows. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that one of the sharpest young crime writers working in England should locate this apocalyptic novel behind the high-security walls of a penitentiary in East Texas.

The narrative focuses on 72 hours in the life of Green River Prison - from the lockdown imposed by a Nietzschean warden through the manic tribal takeover by the inmates to the anarchic cathartic showdown between prisoners and the National Guard. Each of these three movements are structured around the character of Dr Ray Klein - a (falsely accused) rapist who has spent three years working in the Aids-infested infirmary and who has to weigh his chances of parole against the conflicting dictates of freedom, conscience and survival.

Set this against a backdrop of volcanic racism, bootleg whiskey, homosexual rape and unbridled power-lust and you get some flavour of the raw, twitching world of Green River Rising. Willocks carefully side-steps any jukebox liberalism or knee-jerk sentiment, opting instead for a Hobbesian outlook which barely contains an almost biblical sense of imminence. This is the asocial in all its stagnating violence, a theatre without an audience, a spectacle of physical appetite in which control is the only currency.

For a lad from Stalybridge (now a doctor in London), Willocks has an uncanny ear for the rhythms of US prison slang. Indeed the lengths that the characters go to to cast aspersions on each other's birthright provide the book with moments of pure poetry. Not since Seth Morgan's Homeboy has doing bird been captured with such metaphorical flourish.

There is a philosophical depth to the novel that keeps it one step ahead of its macho-swagger. Willocks teases out of his story the mechanisms of its subject - the way in which the prison itself is an admission of failure; the sense that the institution is not there to eliminate, or even to punish, individual transgression, but functions instead as society's unconscious, a place into which we can sublimate our deepest loathings and fears.

In this sense the novel owes as much to the writings of Michel Foucault as it does to the behind-bars-blues of Johnny Cash. Like Foucault's classic study, Discipline and Punish, Willocks' book suggests that visibility is the key to penal justice. So long as the convict can be seen, his lawlessnes can be policed:

'A man entering Green River said goodbye to darkness for the duration of his stay. Darkness permitted at least the illusion of privacy and sense of his own individual existence. Light was discipline, darkness was freedom. Because the inmate was constantly visible, he could never be sure whether he was being spied upon or not, and thus became his own warder, perpetually watching himself on his jailer's behalf. Green River was an architecture of power built upon the paranoid fantasies of the guilty.'