Antiheroes and heroin

THE VIOLENCE OF OUR LIVES Tony Parker HarperCollins £18
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The Independent Culture
Tony Parker opens his preface by telling us, "As Confucius or some other traveller remarked, `A journey of 1,000 miles begins with but a single step.' " In the case of his own, far longer, journey the first step was the letter he sent out to American offenders' associations to locate any lifers willing to be interviewed for this book. The other steps are all hidden: Parker records the talk of a score of American murderers, cutting out his own questions and promptings from the transcript so that the subjects are left to speak for themselves, their self-pity and self- deception merely passed on for whatever it may be worth, everything taken at face value, all judgement withheld.

"From so tiny a cross-section of course no conclusions may be drawn," he says, "except perhaps . . . that there is probably, if we can see it, something of God in everyone." He is not quite right there. His chosen bunch of criminals display traits which accord well with known statistical evidence. They tend to be of the poorer urban classes, children of teenage parents, brought up in the absence of their fathers and sometimes their mothers as well, lacking in confidence, social ability, satisfactory sexual experience and insight into others or themselves. The exceptions are just plain deranged.

Parker's claim to find godliness in all this seems wishful, but presumably he regards such people as the lost sheep that a good shepherd does not abandon, a view for which there is some authority.

Even so, one of them, describing her life, says, "So how does a girl get financial independence when she's 14? Well there's only one way: she has to get someone to look after her, right?" The contradiction is roughly the size of Siberia, but she doesn't spot it. The "someone" was a drug dealer 30 years her senior, and she is furious with a prison counsellor's suggestion that this choice of lover was to compensate for her missing father, whom she never knew.

"Well, if you'll pardon the expression that's bullshit. Oliver wasn't like no father to me, he was my lover and that was what I wanted, not sitting on his knee while he read me fairy stories out of a book, you know what I mean?" A pure pre-Freudian mentality, preserved like a prehistoric insect in amber.

A similar case crops up later. His black father was never identified, his white mother abandoned him, and he was brought up by her mother. Truanting in his teens, he broke into a house where he raped and strangled an elderly white woman. A shrink told him, "You're a classic case. . . You fucked your mother and then you killed her." He is scornful. "The woman looked nothing like my mother. . . My mother's my grandmother like I said, and she's my best friend. . . I've never wanted to have sex with her or wished her any kind of harm."

The girl quoted above killed a pimp who was molesting her - but this creature is repellent. All of Parker's interviewees are sad, but only a few are this bad with it. There is the heroin pusher who killed her lover because he got too clingy and threatened to tell her husband: "We made love, then I took out my .25 from my purse and shot him six times. . . I didn't feel bad about it at all, if he'd just backed off he'd have still been alive today. I did what I had to and if I hadn't been very unlucky people wouldn't ever have known." She got off with 20 years and is now out again. "Things are shaping up good: I've a boyfriend, a job, I've still got looks." And a little gun handy in case?

Then there is the other heroin pusher who killed his girlfriend because he thought she was a police spy, and who blames the government because they trained him to kill in Vietnam. "They were the ones who put it into me, the violence of our lives." It is discouraging that Parker has selected this snivelling excuse as the book's title.

Last, and apparently least, we are given the testimony of some victims' relatives. By this point it is hard to avoid agreeing with one of them, the mother of a clerk shot in a raid, who says, "All the stuff about trying to understand murderers is total shit."