by Theo Padnos
In the mid-1990s, through want of work and a fascination with the violent crimes plaguing the countryside, Theo Padnos found his way inside Vermont's Woodstock County Correctional Facility to teach a class in American literature. My Life Had Stood A Loaded Gun is built on that solid foundation. It is a relevant, if overly ponderous, attempt to explore questions that once ranked among the nation's foremost quandaries: Why are so many young people committing seemingly inexplicable violent crimes? Can literature further their understanding of what led them to pull the trigger, the knife, the rape? Can it offer solace or a glimpse of redemption?
The answer to this last question, Padnos finds, though he's reluctant to admit it, is no. But with zeal known only to true believers, he pushes novels onto an audience far more interested in placing pencils in their noses, and bemoaning their oppression by the Vermont DOC.
That such fervor is met with such indifference provides an avenue for humor, but it's hard to tell how much the author is in on the joke. As he writes of a type of "intensely physical Vermont dude:"
"I've always thought that if... I could hang out with the guy in quiet conversation, he and I would get along well. Some of his toughness might rub off on meÉ And maybe I could do him some good as well--an Allen Ginsberg poem here, a Theodore Roethke poem there."
A poetry for virility swap meet? This would be hilarious, if only he was kidding. Sadly, such self-indulgent inanity is par for the course.
Commandeering the respect of people who lack experience with sophisticated books is not an enviable task. That Padnos keeps at it is admirable, particularly given his street cred insolvency. Sadly, the classroom scenes are like witnessing a milquetoast substitute teacher getting downed by a rowdy class. They're uncomfortable and embarrassing.
The chapters where Padnos reports about his students' lives, as opposed to his obsession with them, outshine everything else. But for a project like My Life to be viable, one needs to evidence some understanding of the prison system and its inhabitants. Padnos merely furthers the understanding of his own obsession. JOHN DICKER