BOOK REVIEW / River of blood, sweat and full-frontal filth: Green River Rising / Tim Willocks, Cape, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
In his declining years, Jeremy Bentham, one of the fathers of utilitarianism, became obsessed with the idea of a 'Panopticon', a penal colony designed so that the inmates could sweat under the all-seeing eye of reasoned authority. In effect, he was proposing something not far short of a concentration camp, a place where prisoners would work 'as many of the four and twenty hours as the demand for meals and sleep leave unengaged'.

Tim Willocks has taken this fearful theory of crime and punishment and added a grisly twist by setting his panopticon - Green River State Penitentiary - in sun-drenched Texas. It is a greenhouse gone mad, roasted by ultraviolent light. Acres of thick glass have made it into an incubator for barbaric lusts: for 350 pages the convicts go berserk in what resembles nothing so much as a grown- up Lord of the Flies adapted for the age of the video nasty. It's hitting all the right buttons: the book looks extremely well set for multi- million dollar stardom.

Green River is presided over by an evil genius called - of course - Hobbes; a depressed visionary who has twisted Bentham's ideas even further out of shape than they were to start with; now he believes in the transcendent healing power of bloodbaths. He orchestrates the rising, then sits back to see what happens. Unfortunately, we have to sit back and see what happens too, and it isn't pretty: page after page of stabbing and slicing, page after page of rough prison sex. It mixes straight horror thrills - how bad is this going to get? - with some lyrical philosophy about human nature. Scratch the surface, it suggests, and men revert to their true selves: swamp creatures wallowing in their own mire. Only one man, Doctor Klein, manages to keep his head above the slime.

The film rights have been taken up by Alan J Pakula, so we can expect an extra dose of political paranoia, plus an allegorical assertion that Green River is America, that all the world's a cage. Even in the book, the brutal sociology of prison life feels like a grim vision of Americana: violence, Aids, racial hostility and so on. The introductory quotation from Richard II ('I have been studying how I may compare/this prison where I live unto the world') shows this to be deliberate. Or, as Willocks might say, with his fondness for emphatic physical imagery - even thoughts come in spasms - it rams the point home.

It's all very fin de siecle, this sex-death fugue, and though it is strong and gripping it also flirts with something slightly tedious: the easy idea that men are beasts. At one point Willocks writes, in the high-flown cadences that flow through the novel: 'Like a tropical wind the ancient violence of men swept in random gusts and sudden squalls throughout the interior of the Green River Penitentiary. It sucked men from the cells and pitilessly exposed them to fire and blade. It revealed without mercy the ugliness, the virulence, the heavy stench of man in his uninhibited purity of being.'

It is tempting, but dull, to present untramelled animal urges as emblems of the 'purity of being' - as if mercy were for wimps. There is, too, a streak of revelry in Willocks's rhythmical prose, in this gloating hymn to the triumph of nastiness over good. But just because mad Hobbes thought that his prison would expose the 'truth' about human nature doesn't mean we have to agree.

These metaphysical concerns are in any case shoved aside by a high, deliberate crudeness. Obscenities are deployed like special effects: instead of surprises in the story, we get shocks in the language. They come at us like prisoners on the rampage, wave after wave of them in a zonked-out frontal assault. Delicate readers should shut their eyes, but much of the dialogue in the book goes:

'Muthafucka] Muthafucka]'

'Fuck] Fuck]'

'Go for it man.'

'Go you sucka, go]'

'Fuck you man] Fuck you]'

Nice, eh? One of the tail-end definitions of the word f*** in the OED calls it 'an empty intensifier'. After a few chapters the author needs lots of italics for emphasis; a few chapters more, and nothing short of a penis hacked off and crammed in the victim's mouth is enough to raise our eyebrows.

Here's another typical conversation:

'Where the fuck you been, Klein? You been giving Abbott a blow job while I wasn't watching?'

'You spic cocksucker,' bellowed Klein. 'I've been saving my jissom for you.'

I only mention this bantering exchange because these two are friends. The book's enemies use some very naughty words indeed.

Actually, enmity tends to make words unnecessary: nothing more is called for than 'a loud bleat of panic'. This is how the prison tough, Nev Agry (an anagram - surely not dear old Tom Graveny?) greets an inmate called Dubois: 'With a rooting, troweling motion he shoved the razor into the shiny jowls under the angle of Dubois' jaw. Blood started to spray from Dubois' lips and nostrils with each shout and the bucking of his body became more frantic. His head started to skid on the blood. Agry dug the razor in deeper, almost up to the handle, searching for the carotid buried in that bloated neck. . .'

This kind of brutal excess is both effective and much-needed, because the plot is strictly B-movie. There are stern mock-epic echoes in that the rising is provoked when Nev Agry's boy-girlfriend is swiped by the blacks; we are obliged to think of Agamemnon sacking Troy to rescue Helen. Otherwise the book leans heavily on surface thrills, pitting one good guy against a mob of animals.

It also gets a familiar sex 'n' violence kick out of stranding a woman inside the prison when the riot goes off. Her response is, well, unusual: when the bad guys rattle the bars of her hiding place she pokes a man's eye out with a tube of glue and smashes his hand with a steel wrench; while waiting for them to return she grabs forty winks, then has sex with a former boxing champion; she blows up some more baddies by igniting some oxygen and ether cylinders on their blow-torch; then Klein arrives, covered in vile gunge from the sewer, and she has sex with him too; there's just time to compare the two men's penises before she has to shoot a couple of psychopaths in the brain, and then the cops arrive. A busy day, or what?

No one could deny that Green River Rising is cunningly wrought and forceful; but it steeps itself too merrily in the poetics of obscenity, and some readers will find it merely nasty (which it is meant to be). By the end even the author's name sounds crude. I dread to think what would happen if he ever ventured into the Pen: those goons would rip his motherfucking willocks off in no time.