In my more whimsical moments, when I’m worried that I don’t have the time and opportunity that I once had to read great works of literature, I have occasionally wondered about committing a minor felony of some sort. I would then be incarcerated for a couple of months and aim to use the time as a reading retreat. All I would need was earplugs, comfy bedding and a prison library card.
Now there’s precedent, too. The author Daniel Genis used his time inside jail to read more than a thousand books during his ten years’ incarceration, and this memoir, Sentence, is his account of his education inside, both literary and (un)sentimental. But by the time I finished reading it, any idea of straying from the straight and narrow had well and truly left my consciousness.
That’s not to say that this isn’t an enjoyably pungent read from the outset. When Genis was in his drug-addicted larceny phase, he was known by the media as the “Apologetic Bandit.” As he recounts it here:
Sick as a dog and desperately wandering downtown, I worked up the courage to show someone the same pocketknife I had once camped with and announced that this was a robbery. When my victim turned over the money, I apologized profusely. I repeated this pattern with varying degrees of success. When told no, I fled. Once, I had a pizza thrown at me. It was stressful and humiliating.
Those who were robbed thus ineffectually by Genis in his “bad week of August 2003” might perceive his actions as threatening and frightening rather than a blundering expression of desperation, but he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to a decade in the big house. As he was apprehended, he was holding Luyc Sante’s Low Life, an account of the malefactions and misdemeanors of Manhattan life throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Genis clearly sees himself as a present-day exemplar of one of Sante’s subjects, even if he has crossed the Rubicon and reinvented himself: from blundering heroin-addicted robber to genteel and erudite man of letters, with a memoir being published by Viking, no less.
It helps, then, that Genis is a splendidly wry and enjoyable tour guide to hell in his capacity as prisoner 04A3328. (His first name goes unuttered during his sentence.) Those of us who have been fortunate enough not to spend time in American penitentiaries might have a romanticized vision of the Shawshank-esque camaraderie and friendship that one might encounter among one’s fellow desperadoes and crooks (as Genis describes it, “a mistaken impression committed by Hollywood”), but we learn that “prison is a transformative experience, very much like war.” Nonetheless, he tips his hat to his “murderous mentors,” who made him the man — and writer — that the book reveals.
There is much dark humor, sometimes painfully so, from the disparity between the high-minded intellectualism that the author espouses — Proust, Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn are not so much namechecked as wielded — and the scatological grimness of the environment depicted herein. Genis has an affinity for the knotty phrase, even if there is an occasional grandiosity to his allusive philosophizing (“In the Malthusian competition of all against everyone, the allegorical hand often functioned as a clenched fist… Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead describes nineteenth-century czarist prisons in a similar way”). His stated intent— to educate his reader as to the insanity and inhumanity of the contemporary American penal experience — is fulfilled admirably over the course of Sentence.
There is literary criticism — Genis doesn’t think much of James Patterson or Michael Crichton — and there are vividly depicted scenes of jailhouse violence and humiliation. If you’ve ever doubted that incarcerated criminals will spend as much time as they can attempting to take their rage (and often mental illness) out on their fellow inmates, Sentence will educate you. But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that this book is in any way smug. Genis has the comic skill of early Woody Allen at describing the indignities and challenges that he, an educated upper-middle-class Jewish man, faced inside, and there are endless throwaway details that provoke wild laughter, not least the description of his strapping magazines on himself to act as crude body armor before a fight. (“As much as I enjoyed the New Yorker, David Remnick didn’t spend nearly enough on paper.”)
Genis has perceptive and often painful things to say about race, justice and society in contemporary America, and it is hard not to finish Sentence without feeling hopeless at the Sisyphean nature of incarceration. As Dostoyevsky wrote, “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.” Going by the stories within this angrily hilarious book, the United States penal system has a phenomenal amount to answer for. Certainly, anyone reading Genis’s memoir who is even vaguely tempted by the idea of prison as a reading retreat will never think of penitentiaries as places of literary study again.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2022 World edition.