Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett
By Jennifer Gonnerman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24)
Remember our other flailing, fruitless, misguided war—the war on drugs? Journalist Jennifer Gonnerman will remind you with this grim yet even-tempered story of Elaine Bartlett, who, at age 26, received a 20-year prison term under New York's "Rockefeller laws" for participating in the sale of 4 ounces of coke—the Harlem mother's first criminal offense. Some 16 years into her sentence, after her case got a little press, she was sprung by Gov. George Pataki. When she emerged in January 2000, Gonnerman began shadowing her to report on the challenges she faced re-entering society. With get-tough drug-sentencing laws pushing the nation's prison population to unheard-of levels, cycling a half-million ex-cons back onto the streets every year, Gonnerman set out to see how well the reintegration is going.
Need I say "not well"? As Bartlett struggles to corral and care for the four children who grew up without her, to find work and housing that a convicted felon can afford, she is continually thwarted by the infantilizing rules of parole, by social norms she's unequipped to handle, by her temper and pride, by an economic system that makes welfare more appealing than a job, and by a general level of chaos, pathology, and poverty that would challenge anyone's best intentions. It's remarkable Bartlett does as well as she does—which ain't that great. Gonnerman's main mission is to draw attention to the unjust policy of locking up petty drug dealers for longer than robbers and rapists, yet the hundreds of hours she spent as a fly on the wall with Bartlett and her family reveal a destitute slum-class for whom unjust incarceration looks like only one ingredient—and very possibly not the most critical one—in a hopeless stew. The 16-year separation from their mother surely did Bartlett's children no good, yet their fate seems about as dismal as that of any other kids growing up around Avenue D in the '80s.
A writer for The Village Voice (also owned by SW's parent company), Gonnerman doesn't distinguish in her narrative between what she sees firsthand and what she only learns about through interviews and research. Indeed, she keeps herself out of the book entirely, saving an explanation of her methods for an author's note at the end. I actually found the '80s and '90s material she re-created in the book's first half more compelling, more economical and masterfully paced, than the firsthand reporting that comprises the book's second half. This latter section is slowed by occasional vignettes that seem to have been included only because Gonnerman was there to witness them, not because they're especially telling. But these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a model of plainspoken, vivid journalism. At a time when a majority of our journalistic profession seems devoted to chronicling celebrity culture, thank God there are still a few writers like Gonnerman who are willing to report from the real world. MARK D. FEFER
The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor
By Ken Silverstein (Random House, $22.95)
Cruising his suburban Detroit neighborhood in the early '90s on a motorized skateboard of his own design, his hair a rainbow mess from experiments with homemade dye and his pockets bulging with transistors and copper wire, teenager David Hahn was so outlandishly geeky as to put all Hollywood stereotypes to shame. Inspired by the optimistic, brightly illustrated 1960s-era Golden Book of Chemistry, Hahn manufactured rayon, chlorine gas, and fireworks, then finally followed in the footsteps of the heroes of Chapter 10 of the Golden Book, nuclear pioneers Marie and Pierre Curie. How close Hahn really came to his ultimate goal of creating a breeder reactor is not clear. As authorities were closing in, he disposed of much of the incriminating evidence (including old glow-in-the-dark clocks and discarded smoke detectors whose radioactive components he ingeniously harvested). He apparently did make a working neutron gun and generated a potentially lethal amount of radiation. His backyard shed, as crude and drafty as the lab in which the Curies discovered radium, eventually qualified as a Superfund cleanup site. While terrified neighbors looked on, men in white suits dismantled and hauled off Hahn's shed in sealed drums. The long-term effects on his neighborhood are not known yet, and Hahn refuses to test his body, afraid of what he might find.
Expanding from his 1998 Harpers article, Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Silverstein spins a fascinating tale despite some occasionally sludgy, inept prose. (At one point he refers to The Simpsons as "satirical but potent antinuclear satire.") One of his most effective angles on the story is his argument that the nuclear energy industry as a whole has been just as childishly blind to the dangers of radiation as his reckless teenage hero. The most outrageous and shameful aspect to me, though, is how miserably the educational system failed this kid. The science teachers of Chippewa Valley High School regarded Hahn's blazing passion for science as a bizarre nuisance. His talent and resourcefulness should have landed him at MIT with a full scholarship. He was instead compelled by his exasperated, clueless father to join the Navy, where he ended up swabbing the decks of the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. DAVID STOESZ
By Benjamin Weissman (Akashic, $12.95)
Don't tell Benjamin Weissman that sex-instruction manuals have no place in art. For any other author, "Tips From the Sensual Man," which anchors this sophomore short-story anthology, would be more halftime show than how-to. Weissman, conversely, takes a breather from feverish depictions of fecal toilet overflow, bear fisting, and lingerie-model twin-sister incest to offer a solemn, sincere clinic on . . . analingus. "With your tongue, you can say 'Hey, you shy eye socket, no one's going to hurt you,'" he instructs.
"Tips" is among the more family- friendly moments in Headless, a jarringly scat(ter)-brained collection, and itself a tutorial on exemplary contemporary short-storytelling. Step one: Bring a convincingly diverse array of fucked-up voices to the keyboard. Weissman's predilection toward brevity—he crams 22 stories into a scant 146 pages—is frustrating only because he has so many bizarre ideas to pollute the world with. The collection opens with Hitler fantasizing about his own evisceration and closes with hyperarticulate preadolescent siblings from hell calling their detached father a "toilet fuck" at the breakfast table. In between are comparably pulpy first- person accounts, many of which ruminate on sexual grotesquerie and skiing.
"Dear Après–Ski Forum" is basically a Penthouse Forum satire for the slopes, detailing water sports, bukkake, and fart fetishes with droll, inventive specificity. Lest you think Headless is mere trash rhetoric, Weissman displays surprising compassion and warmth in "Marnie." It's another ski story, but less trained on erotic impropriety than its titular protagonist's (think Eternal Sunshine's free spirit Clementine) crippling injury. Even if it's Weismann's least original idea, the depth of detail, research, and emotion transforms it into his most unforgettable piece— maybe because it comes from the heart, not the rectum. ANDREW BONAZELLI