Friday, July 10, 2009

Books You Oughta Read -- Stone City

I’ve been making an attempt to clear some space in the house, which — surprise! — has necessitated moving lots of books around. One upside of the process is re-discovering titles, often in paperback, that I liked enough to keep around for up to 15 years or more. In general, they’re not huge best-sellers or even critically well regarded. They’re just good books that hit my critical sweet spot once upon a time.

Over the next little while, I plan to write about some of them, under the rubric Books You Oughta Read. I don’t actually plan to re-read these books, at least not immediately, so my comments should taken as semi-informed, if not 100 percent reliable.

First up — “Stone City” by Mitchell Smith!

I have not read all of his work, but the bulk of Mitchell Smith’s output can be described as — uncompromising. Mr. Smith does not screw around. If he sets up a premise and a theme, he is going to follow them to the bitter, bitter end.

Case in point, 1990’s “Stone City,” easily the best prison novel I’ve ever read. (A small field, admittedly.) Set in a hellish state penitentiary, it focuses on ex-college professor Charles Bauman as he attempts to find a serial killer preying on his fellow inmates. Bauman is what’s known as too smart for his own good, and the narrative of “Stone City” concerns his continuing education as he moves through the various social strata in the prison and tries to solve a mystery while keeping himself -- and his family on the outside -- alive. Caught in a mesh of conflicting agendas, he mixes with black, Hispanic and Aryan gangs, lone psychopaths and transvestite punks.The narrative tension never slackens, and Bauman's complexities and foibles are explored with bleak, unflinching eye.

“Stone City” was published seven years before Tom Fontana’s “Oz.,” the hour-long prison drama on HBO. The novel's originality may seem obscured at this point, but I'd never read anything like it when I picked up the paperback in 1991. I don't know how Mitchell researched the book, but every aspect of it feels real, sometimes terrifyingly so. (Mitchell's bio notes that he worked in Intelligence in Cold War Berlin; I wish he had tackled a novel of espionage.)

The ending of “Stone City” is genuinely shocking, and it pisses off a lot of readers. But I find it absolutely apt, as would anyone else with an appreciation for classical tragedy, I suspect.

There's not a whole lot of information about Smith available on the Web. This profile from the Seattle Times is particularly informative, though. As for his other novels, "Karma" and "Reprisal" are the two that stand out among those I've read, but they don't match the intensity or craft of "Stone City." I regret not at least sampling his final work, the science fictional "Snowfall Trilogy."

“Stone City” is out of print, which is a shame. If you see a used copy, grab it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes. Read it maybe 15 years ago, it's still with me. The ending still twists a gut.