In the mind and the belly of the beast

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The Independent Online

It seems that Norman Mailer has been uncharacteristically quiet about an event that occurred while he was in England on a chat tour. Those interviewing the great man about the new mood of Americans were told that "we need our manhood reaffirmed every six seconds", and this typically Maileresque soundbite has a curious resonance in the case of Jack Henry Abbott, a convicted murderer, who on 10 February, hung himself in his cell in a Utah penitentiary.

Abbott, it might just be remembered, was briefly famous in 1981 when he was the hero, then the villain, of a dramatic tale of the literary life. A couple of years previously, after hearing that Norman Mailer was working on a novel based on the life of the executed murderer Gary Gilmore, Abbott had written a series of letters from Marion Federal Prison, Illinois, about his own miserable life.

From the age of 13 onwards, he had spent all his life, apart from a year on the run in 1971, in an institution. Behind bars, he had descended into criminality and was currently serving a sentence for the fatal stabbing of a fellow-inmate. The story that he told, of childhood cruelty and neglect, of woeful judicial prejudice, of survival through violence in the unseen hell of the American penal system, was probably not that unusual. The way that he wrote about it, on the other hand, was.

"This guy isn't a murderer, he's an artist," Mailer proclaimed, a trifle rashly under the circumstances. He collected the letters, found a publisher for them and wrote an introduction for the book, which was entitled In the Belly of the Beast. During the fuss surrounding publication, he and other writers and actors began to campaign for Abbott's release on parole. The book came out in 1981 and, in the same year, so did its author.

Briefly, Abbott became a semi-celebrity in the literary scene. His work was serialised in The New York Review of Books. His ferocious, uncompromising prose was acclaimed. The fact that he was walking free, attending book launches and being interviewed on Good Morning America was seen as triumph of writerly solidarity, a victory for literature over life. Foreign rights in the book were sold worldwide, including to Britain where I, an editor at the time, was the proud publisher.

Then, six weeks after Abbott's release, something unfortunate happened. While eating out at a Manhattan restaurant, the newly famous author became involved in an altercation with Richard Adan, a young waiter – an altercation that ended with Adan being stabbed to death.

The literary bandwagon came to a juddering halt. Writers get excited when their quiet existence is enlivened by real events, but that was too real. Mailer, Susan Sarandon and a few others attended Abbott's trial but, where there had been enthusiasm, there was now embarrassment. Those of us who had published the book found ourselves quietly burying it.

After his excursion into the world of letters, Jack Henry Abbott resumed a life of obscurity. The incident became accepted as a perfect little parable of liberal naivety, illustrating the dangers incurred by intellectuals who meddled in matters beyond their experience. Opinions of Abbott's talent were quietly revised, with commentators inevitably quoting Humbert Humbert's line from Lolita: "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."

But perhaps, now that Abbott is dead, it will be seen that there was more to his story than the gullibility of literary types, that its real tragedy lies deep within American society. Evil is the hot, easy subject over there at the moment. Anyone who wants to look beyond the labels and the name-calling could do worse than to read the letters, sent from the belly of the beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.