"Jailwise" by Lucius Shepard: An Appreciation by Ben Peek
By Lucius Shepard.
On my first night in jail, at the age of fifteen, a Mexican kid came over to where I was standing by myself in the day room, trying to hide behind an arrogant pose, and asked if I was jailwise. Not wanting to appear inexperienced, I said that I was, but the Mexican, obviously convinced that I was not, proceeded to enlighten me... In every jail and prison where I had done time, I had received a similar indoctrination lecture from a stranger with whom I would never interact again. It was as if the system itself had urged someone forward, stimulating them by means of some improbable circuitry to volunteer the fundamentals of survival specific to the place.
Everyone has a passion.
Me, I got a passion for culture, for society, for the social fabric we find ourselves stuck in from the day we scream to show we're alive. Not all of it appeals to me--I don't have much time for religion, and politics is much the same puppet on either side of the hand now, so I find myself quite content to keep both in the background for the most part. Part of that is also, to my mind, because there is a whole heap more that an author can engage with in a dialogue should he/she wish. As an author, I write to give those passions of mine a dialogue with the world; as a reader, I read to have those passions engaged with in a dialogue.
Which brings me to Lucius Shepard's Jailwise.
I could've written about any number of Lucius Shepard's stories that were published on Sci-Fiction. From A Walk in the Garden and it's conversation with the Iraq War, Over Yonder and its contemplation of the nature of life after death (or indeed, simply the nature of life), and others, I could have written about the beauty of the prose, talked about the intelligence behind each, shown you the passion that motivated them all... and I would be right with each, even with those stories that don't work as well for me, such as Liar's House. I would be right. If you disagreed, I'd still be right, and you would just have to deal with that. But how to write about all those stories--how to write not just about them, but about an author's recent body of work?
Jailwise, published in 2003, is the story of Tommy Penhaligon, a career criminal (he's been in and out of prison since the age of 15) who is sent to the prison known as Diamond Bar. In Diamond Bar, Penhaligon encounters a prison without guards, a prison where he must pick his own cell, where food is good, drugs supplied, and men who, to every inch of touchable flesh, feel and look like women, exist. It's a system that challenges everything he has known of The System
and it is here that Shepard begins his dialogue with the nature of incarceration, of the system that creates career criminals like Penhaligon.
I consider Jailwise to be the best story to represent Shepard's current body of work. Prolific, passionate, a lot more focused than the Shepard of the eighties and nineties, the work that Shepard has been publishing in the last five years cannot be properly assessed as individual pieces. Instead, it's a body a work. Read the novel A Handbook of American Prayer, the story Only Partly There, the novel Floater, and each of the stories published by Ellen Datlow... read each of them and you will find Shepard engaged in a conversation with society, each work showing a different aspect of his interest, a different concern, and while things do overlap, such as Shepard's interest in the relationships between men and women, and the fierce morality that speaks of Shepard himself once the work is seen as a whole... despite this, you will find a body of work with a diverse, splintered gaze. Shepard sees the World--an American World, yes, but one in which America interacts with the world.
To find an author who is creating such a body of work is rare. There's too much of nothing in the authors of the world today, too much of a simple escapism that, when assembled into a whole, is a bland, grey series of repetition. It oughtn't be that way, you ask me. We ought to have fierce, independent authors who want to converse as they entertain, who have a morality that isn't simple, that cannot be explained in a sentence. That's what I want--what I think authors should be, what I want to find when I sit down with a book.
And Lucius Shepard is that kind of author. If you don't like what he does, then that's fine. You're not required to agree with everything anyone ever wrote, something I reckon we might sometimes forget. Which is why, if you haven't read Shepard's work before, or you haven't read it in the new century, then you want to go and read Jailwise.
Link to story.