First off, let me warn those with delicate sensibilities that this is a novel, one that involves some unbiblical sex, some language that I don’t use while teaching Sunday school, and no sign of real hope at the end. But those aren’t good reasons to avoid Chris Huntington’s Mike Tyson Slept Here. Rather, those folks who confess Total Depravity ought to take a look and see just how mundane and harmless Total Depravity looks. This is a book in which I’m personally invested, or at the very least one set in my hometown and whose protagonist shares my last name. The author is also a good friend of my father’s. I should go ahead and note that Brant Gilmour is not an allegory for any historical Gilmour of whom I’m aware, neither my father nor me. There is a minor character in the book who tells Gilmour-style stories, but I’ll leave that for readers who know me or my brother or my dad to find. What makes this book interesting, even for folks who have never been to Plainfield, Indiana and who never intend to spend any time in prison, is the strong exploration of human nature. Although I’m not sure Huntington himself would have phrased it this way, Mike Tyson Slept Here demonstrates a grasp of sin and its power that a much “darker” book likely would miss.
Mike Tyson Slept Here switches from Gilmour’s first-person point of view regularly, doing brief chapters in the voices of a central Indiana lawyer, in that of a corrections officer (the novel explains why “prison guard” is a strange term to use), in those of various employees of the prison, and for a while in the third person. I realize a novel, even a short one like this one, is too complex to have a thesis, but a brief bit of dialogue in the first few pages of the novel, narrated by Gilmour, sets the stage for all of the complex human reality that is to come:
One time in the parking lot, Englehart had asked me what the difference was between a corrections officer and an inmate, since both spent all day looking at the same fence. “The tattoos?” I said. “Teeth?”
“No,” he said. “We just do our sentences eight hours at a time.” (3)
In the course of the novel the prison is everyone’s antagonist: for Gilmour, it stands in the way of his making genuine human connections with the inmates and in some respects with his coworkers. For other employees,those who have been “institutionalized” longer than the young protagonist (he seems to have graduated from Indiana University at some point in the George W. Bush years, judging by pop culture references here and there), the prison means that, in exchange for state employee benefits and a steady job, they trade the ability to see the inmates as human, to treat them as beings with anything like hope for a future, and in some cases to imagine a life not confined to central Indiana, to the daily grind of returning to the metal detectors and the inmates’ nonsense, to the apathy that consumes some part of all of the characters.
Huntington is a shrewd storyteller in that his descriptions of things are so everyday that they don’t strike the reader as “dark” in any overt way: at all points, he captures the strange and ironic optimism that tends to characterize Hoosiers and midwesterners in general, and it’s only deep into the novel that the reader, or Brant Gilmour, really starts to “learn” what prison does to the soul. By the time that Gilmour’s closest relationships unravel (and they do so partly because of a fear that Brant might escape and partly because of the despair that comes with knowing that others never will), he has himself started to think like a prison worker. But because the moments of inhumanity come with jokes at first (and prison humor is always funny even if you hate yourself for laughing), it takes most of the novel for the power of the system to become really known. And that’s what makes this such an interesting novel–the reader can’t see it coming any more than Brant can. As Gilmour’s attempts to treat his inmates as human beings at first meet with the eye-rolling condescension of his coworkers, then outright protest, Gilmour’s own soul has changed to that eventually there’s not even any need to protest: Gilmour’s ability to resist the system only lasts so long, and that’s in a brief novel.
When the action is not happening through Gilmour’s eyes, other characters like an infirmary nurse show other moments of resistance but, like Gilmour, ultimately prove unable to maintain. Because they’re small gestures like speaking encouragement to inmates or displaying photographs of family in spite of inmates’ leering, they don’t amount to much individually when they disappear, but ultimately Brant Gilmour finds that the moments of light he sees in the prison are fleeting, that the unending moments of servitude, for the men in for years and for the women and men in for eight hours at a time, are ultimately more powerful than anyone can resist. When an Indianapolis lawyer goes from success to incarceration in a matter of hours towards the end of the novel, that’s when the reader realizes that he’s only doing quickly what everyone else is doing a shift at a time. And a seemingly unrelated side-story (the one told in third person) intrudes in the latter half of the novel, one in which neither of the main characters has ever been incarcerated or worked a day in a prison, only makes sense once one has grasped the moral architecture of the novel: like the folks in prison, the fitness gym worker and the bartender re-enacting Sartre’s No Exit (except with some of the genders and desires reassigned) are themselves living in their own prisons, unable to escape or even resist for very long at all.
As I noted before, I don’t know that Huntington himself would approve of his novel’s being read theologically (though that’s the danger of being a novelist–a crazy ex-seminarian like myself might get ahold of it), but his multiple-perspective storytelling and his intelligent deferral (dare I say deferance?) of the horror of prison life left me meditating on Total Depravity. If sin were always a fanged and gore-dripping thing, it would be much easier to dodge and perhaps even to decline when it popped up. As this novel’s characters “learn,” though, the sin embodied in the systems of human civilization more often than not come across as small concessions, never giving anyone the opportunity to make the hero’s or even the martyr’s stand. And that’s how this novel should be: Jesus only appears briefly when a WWJD cap gets mentioned, and the Jesus of the ballcap ultimately saves nobody. Some stories are not for the sake of hope; Huntington’s story remains content to name and to narrate sin, and it does both in ways that leave me reaching for my edition of Calvin.