A woman begins serving two life sentences at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility, deep in 2003 California's Central Valley, reflecting on the San Francisco of her youth and her relationship with her young son while navigating the harsh realities of a bare-essentials life of casual violence at the hands of the guards and her fellow inmates. By the award-winning author of The Flamethrowers.
*Starred Review* The Mars Room is a seedy San Francisco strip club, a dark little planet where interactions are strictly cash-based, just the way Romy Hall likes it. But one regular customer plunges into obsession, and now Romy is heading to prison for life two times over. In smart, determined, and vigilant Romy, Kushner (The Flamethrowers, 2013), an acclaimed writer of exhilarating skills, has created a seductive narrator of tigerish intensity whose only vulnerability is her young son. As Romy takes measure of the dangerously byzantine dynamics of the women's correctional facility, Kushner brings forth commanding, contradictory characters habitually abused by the so-called justice system, which is rendered as both diabolical and ludicrous, poisoned by racism, sexism, and class biases, its rules cleverly subverted by inmates seizing dignity, self-expression, and enterprise. Kushner also gives voice to an imprisoned and endangered rogue cop, a lonely prison teacher attempting to share the solace of books, and the stalker Romy is convicted of murdering. This is a gorgeously eviscerating novel of incarceration writ large, of people trapped in the wrong body, the wrong family, poverty, addiction, and prejudice. The very land is chained and exploited. Rooted in deeply inquisitive thinking and executed with artistry and edgy wit, Kushner's dramatic and disquieting novel investigates with verve and compassion societal strictures and how very difficult it is to understand each other and to be truly free. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
Another searing look at life on the margins from the author of The Strange Case of Rachel K (2015) and The Flamethrowers (2013). Romy Hall killed a man. This is a fact. The man she killed was stalking her. This is also a fact, but, as far as the jury was concerned, the first fact mattered more than the second. That's why she's serving two life sentences at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility in California's Central Valley. Romy soon learns that life in prison is, in many respects, like her former life working at the Mars Room, a down-market strip club in San Francisco. The fight for dominance among the powerless looks much the same anywhere, Romy explains, and this novel is very much a novel about powerlessness. Romy is smart, she loves her son, but the odds were against her from the beginning, and most of the stories that intertwine with hers are similar in both their general outlines and their particulars. Chaotic family backgrounds, heavy drug use, and sex work are com mon themes. Several of the women Romy meets have been in and out of the jail for much of their lives. There are exceptions, like Betty the one-time leg model, who paid a contract killer to murder her husband for life insurance money and then put out a hit on the hit man because she was afraid he would talk. She becomes something of a celebrity inside Stanville. The cop who killed the hit man also becomes a major character. He's different from the women in this novel because he once had considerable power, but he, too, has a history of abuse and neglect. Gordon Hauser, who teaches GED-prep classes at Stanville, has more agency that any other main character, but he quickly learns the limits of his ability to help any of the women he meets. This is, fundamentally, a novel about poverty and how our structures of power do not work for the poor, and Kushner does not flinch. If the novel lags a bit in the long sections of backstory, it's because the honest depiction of prison life i s so gripping. An unforgiving look at a brutal system. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
The trouble with San Francisco was that I could never have a future in that city, only a past.
The city to me was the Sunset District, fog-banked, treeless, and bleak, with endless unvaried houses built on sand dunes that stretched forty-eight blocks to the beach, houses that were occupied by middle- and lower-middle-class Chinese Americans and working-class Irish Catholics.
Fly Lie, we’d say, ordering lunch in middle school. Fried rice, which came in a paper carton. Tasted delicious but was never enough, especially if you were stoned. We called them gooks. We didn’t know that meant Vietnamese. The Chinese were our gooks. And the Laotians and Cambodians were FOBs, fresh off the boat. This was the 1980s and just think what these people went through, to arrive in the United States. But we didn’t know and didn’t know to care. They couldn’t speak English and they smelled to us of their alien food.
The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. It was us girls in the back of someone’s primered Charger or Challenger riding those short, but long, forty-eight blocks to the beach, one boy shotgun with a stolen fire extinguisher, flocking people on street corners, randoms blasted white.
If you were visiting the city, or if you were a resident from the other, more admired parts of the city and you took a trip out to the beach, you might have seen, beyond the sea wall, our bonfires, which made the girls’ hair smell of smoke. If you were there in early January, you would see bigger bonfires, ones built of discarded Christmas trees, so dry and flammable they exploded on the high pyres. After each explosion you might have heard us cheer. When I say us I mean us WPODs. We loved life more than the future. “White Punks on Dope” is just some song; we didn’t even listen to it. The acronym was something else, not a gang but a grouping. An attitude, a way of dressing, living, being. Some changed our graffiti to White Powder on Donuts, and many of us were not even white, which becomes harder to explain, because the whole world of the Sunset WPODs was about white power, not powder, but these were the beliefs of not powerful kids who might end up passing through rehab centers and jails, unless they were the chosen few, the very few girls and boys, who, respectively, either enrolled in the Deloux School of Beauty, or got hired at John John Roofing on Ninth Avenue between Irving and Lincoln.
When I was little I saw a cover of an old magazine that showed the robes and feet of people who had drunk the Kool-Aid Jim Jones handed out in Guyana. My entire childhood I would think of that image and feel bad. I once told Jimmy Darling and he said it wasn’t actually Kool-Aid. It was Hi-C.
What kind of person would want to clarify such a thing?
A smart-ass is who. A person who is safe from that image in a way I was not. I was not likely to join a cult. That was not the danger I felt in glimpsing the feet of the dead, the bucket from which they drank. It was the proven fact, in the photographed feet, that you could drink death and join it.
When I was five or six years old I saw a paperback cover in the supermarket that was a drawing of a woman and her nude body had two knives coming out of it, blood pooling around her. The cover of the book said, “Killed Twice.” That was its title. I was away from my mother, who was shopping somewhere in the market. We were at Park and Shop on Irving and I felt I was not just a few aisles away but permanently sucked out to sea, to the engulfing world of Killed Twice. Coming home from the market, I was nauseous. I could not eat the dinner my mother prepared. She didn’t really cook. It was probably Top Ramen she prepared for me, and then attended to whichever of the men she was dating at the time.
For years, whenever I thought of that image on the cover of Killed Twice I felt sick. Now I can see that what I experienced was normal. You learn when you’re young that evil exists. You absorb the knowledge of it. When this happens for the first time, it does not go down easy. It goes down like a horse pill.
At age ten I fell under the spell of an older girl named Tyra. She had glassy eyes and olive skin and a husky, tough-girl voice. The night I met her I was in someone’s car, driving around drinking Löwenbräu lights. Lowie lights, green bottles with a baby-blue label. We picked up Tyra on Noriega, at a house that was an informal foster home for girls. The man who ran it, Russ, forced himself on the girls at night, unpredictably but predictably. If you stayed there, sooner or later you were going to be visited at night by Russ, who was old, and muscular, and mean. The girls complained about being raped by him as if it were a form of strictness, or rent. They were willing to endure it because they didn’t have other options. The rest of us did nothing about it because Russ bought us liquor and what were we to do, call the police? One of them was known for taking girls out to Point Lobos instead of to the police station on Taraval.
Tyra called shotgun in a menacing way and got in the front, put her feet on the dash. She was already buzzed, she told us, slur- ring her words in a way I found glamorous. She wore diamond earrings. They flashed from her little-girl ears as she drained a Lowie light and pitched her empty from the window of the car. Maybe Tyra’s earrings were fakes. It didn’t matter. Their effect was the same. For me she had the magic.
That year I’d had a chance to know a nice girl, with two parents, middle-class. She came to my house for a sleepover. The next week at school she told everyone that at my house we ate Hostess pies for dinner and threw the wrappers under the bed. I have no memory of that. I’m not saying it isn’t true. My mom let me eat what I wanted for dinner. She was usually with whatever guy she was seeing, someone who didn’t like children, so they’d be shut up in her bedroom with the door locked. We had an account at the corner market and I’d go down there and get goodies, chips, liters of soda, whatever I wanted. I didn’t know to pretend to live some other way to make an impression on another kid. It made me sad what this girl said about me and about our house. I was sad even as I stuck a pin in her ass as she got off the 6 Parnassus after school. Stood by the back doors, and as she exited I jabbed her, right through her pants. Everyone did that. We stole the pins from home economics. It was normal, but it made tears roll down your face if someone did it to you.
That diamonds are supposedly forever was something Jimmy Darling joked about. Every mineral here on earth is forever, he said. But they make it seem like diamonds are especially forever, in order to sell them, and it works.
A few days later Tyra called me and we made a plan to go to Golden Gate Park on a Sunday, to the bridge, where people roller-skate and hang out. Tyra came to my house, since I lived a few blocks from the bridge.
She said, “I need to beat this bitch’s face in.” I said okay and we went to the park.
The girl whose face Tyra had an appointment to beat in was already there, with two older brothers. They were not from the Sunset; later I learned they lived in the Haight. The brothers were adults, both mechanics at a garage on Cole Street. The girl, Tyra’s opponent, was tall and delicate-looking with a shiny black pony- tail. She was wearing pink shorts and a shirt that said whatever. Her lips were tinged with the bluish effect of opalescent gloss. Tyra was athletic and tough. Nobody wanted to fight her. She and this leggy girl with the ponytail took off their skates. They fought on the grass, in their socks. The socks softened nothing.
Tyra threw a fierce kick, but the other girl grabbed her foot, and Tyra lost her balance and was on the ground. The girl jumped on top, pinned Tyra’s chest with her own knees, and began punching Tyra in the face, alternating fists, left right left, like she was kneading dough, punching it down to size. Punching it and punching it, dough that was a face. Her brothers shouted encouragement. They were rooting for her, but if she were losing, they would not have stepped in, I knew. They were there as believers in the honesty of a fight and the pride of fighting well. She punched and punched. Her arms seemed too skinny to carry any force on contact, fist to face, but eventually they produced their damage. It never occurred to me to jump in. I watched Tyra get pummeled.
When the girl felt she had sufficiently made her point, she let up. She stood, retightening her ponytail, and pulled her shorts out of her ass crack. Tyra sat up, trying to wipe away her tears. I went to help her. Her hair was tangled. She was covered in dead grass clippings.
“I got a good lick in,” she said. “Did you see how I kicked that bitch in the chest?”
Both of her eyes were swollen almost closed. Her cheeks had turned to hard shiny lumps. She had an open gash on her chin from the girl’s ring. “I got a pretty good lick in,” she repeated. It was the best way to look at things, but the truth was she had been brutally beaten up, and by a prissy girl in a whatever T-shirt, an unlikely winner who was not an unlikely winner, it became clear the moment the fight began. The winner was Eva.
I did not become friends with Eva that day, but later. Whenever that later was, a year maybe, the memory of her and her punches was undiminished. I knew something about her. Most girls talk a big game, and then they scratch and pull hair, or don’t show up for the fight.
I suppose you could say I traded Tyra for Eva, like I traded Ajax for Jimmy Darling. But in both cases, the first was there to lead me to the second. Life allows for assessments, and reas- sessments. And anyhow, who wants to be stuck with a loser?
Eva was a professional. One of those girls who always had a lighter, bottle opener, graffiti markers, flask, amyl nitrate, Buck knife, even her own sensor remover—the device that department store clerks used to remove theft prevention clips from new clothes. She stole it. The rest of us ripped out the sensors forcibly before leaving the store with our stolen loot. A sensor in a dressing room was a giveaway, so we took them with us, crammed up under our armpits, which muffled the sensor, deadened it to the detection alarm. We were not kleptomaniacs. That’s a term for rich people who steal by compulsion. We were finding innovative ways to acquire makeup and perfume and purses and clothes—all the normal things a girl would be expected to have and want, and which we could not afford.
All my clothes had holes in them from where the sensors had been attached. Eva removed them from her stolen clothes properly, with her magic device. Once, she walked right into I. Magnin, clipped the wires from a rabbit fur coat with wire cutters, put it on, and ran for it. The wires fit through the arms of the fur and leather jackets, with large hoops dangling from the ends of the sleeves like giant handcuffs.
Eva went through a tomboy phase and stopped wearing fur jackets. She dressed like one of the Sunset guys, Ben Davis pants with a janitorial key ring dangling from a belt loop. The more keys on the ring, the better. It didn’t matter if they opened any- thing, except beer bottles. She wore a black Derby jacket, with the gold paisley padding on the inside, the trademark shoulder- to-shoulder seams. Like the boys, she completed that look with steel-toed boots—for kicking peoples’ heads in should the need arise.
One night I encountered a group of guys sitting in the dark drinking 151 in Big Rec, older people I had never seen, from Crocker Amazon, which was something like enemy territory. They wanted to show me Polaroids of Eva. Is this your friend? In the photos, Eva was passed-out drunk and stripped of her tough-kid uniform, with a baseball bat between her naked thighs.
Eva fist-fought guys and won. She one-upped everyone with drugs and drink. These boys with their photos, they knew what it meant to have done that to Eva and they wanted me to see.
I never told her, and even thinking of what happened later, Eva a crack addict in the Tenderloin, the Polaroid photos with the bat was still the worst thing that anyone had done to her. She did plenty to herself, but that is different.