A Prison Happy Ending

A Prison Happy Ending

In September of 2013, a man in his early 20’s, Eric Knysz (pronounced “Nize”), and his pregnant wife, were approached at a gas station by a Michigan State Police named Paul Butterfield.  Knysz was wanted for something or other and overreacted when the officer appeared at his car window.  He pulled a gun from somewhere and shot the officer in the face, killing him.

Knysz was soon apprehended.  His wife was charged as an accomplice and eventually agreed to testify against Eric for a reduced sentence.  She was sentenced to 4 years and has since given birth.   Her husband went to trial and was convicted of murdering a police officer.  The sentence was mandatory, as they are in Michigan:  life in prison without the possibility of parole.  It doesn’t matter if you’re 80 years old, that sentence feels like a Buick on your head.  I personally would have preferred being sentenced to death (Michigan does not have, nor has it ever had as far as I know, the death penalty) because at least an end is visible.  In April, Eric hung himself shortly after arriving at the prison complex in Jackson.

That story, as tragic as anything Shakespeare ever wrote, isn’t the point.  The convicted killer didn’t die right away.  After being found hanging from a bed sheet in his cell, he was cut down, had C.P.R. performed on him by prison guards, was taken to a local hospital, placed on life support and eventually declared “brain dead.”  Years ago, he had signed up to be an organ donor, so while his body and organs were kept alive, recipients were lined up to benefit from what appeared, from every perspective, to be a horrible situation.

I’m going to digress here briefly to talk about prisoners—what I know of prisoners anyway:  Eric, who ended a man’s life—a man who was just doing his job, had a fiancé and a family who loved him deeply—was once concerned enough about his fellow man to think, “If I die someday when my organs are still young and viable, I’d like to help other people.”  He actually went through the process of becoming an organ donor, which may now be as simple as signing the back of your driver’s license, but regardless, a majority of Americans have never done it.  My point is, Eric had (and still had, I’m convinced) a part of him that was good.  I will venture to say that 90% of prisoners have something good in them.  That is probably a percentage on par with everyone in the world.

I followed the development of Eric’s lingering on life support as I follow everything dealing with inmates, crime, etc.  After his organs were harvested and he was allowed to die, his sister appeared on the local nightly news explaining about what had transpired.  An eloquent, caring and wonderful spokesperson for the family, she was visibly sad and subdued—probably shattered is the more appropriate word—saying she understood that his organ donation, while generous, didn’t bring back Mr. Butterfield, but her brother was a good person who hung himself because, she believed, he couldn’t live with the fact of having taken another man’s life.

She said that the family was sorry for everything and thanked the Michigan Department of Corrections because “they had hugged her family members and had allowed them to hold Eric’s hand before he died.”  Eric’s sister said the M.D.O.C. didn’t have to be so compassionate, but they were, and she appreciated it.  So, kudos to those employees who were caring towards the Knysz family.

And while I’m writing about positives, here is something else the M.D. O. C. does well:  There is absolutely no discrimination in their inmate hiring practices.  In every inmate job, from maintenance workers, to kitchen workers, to porters, to specialized porters and yard crew—every job that inmates do—you will see absolute equality in African-American, Latino, white, Asian, and others.  I have always been impressed by this, which, if you think about it, is unfortunate because that means out in the world, you don’t normally see such equality.

Also, I have been to two prisons so far in my “bit” (that’s a little prison slang for you—what inmates call the time they’re doing).  The warden at Muskegon was a white lady.  The warden at my current prison is an African-American lady.  Though I can’t speak to the hiring parity throughout the M.D.O.C., from what I’ve seen, the employees seem pretty equal as far as gender and minorities are concerned, much more equal than the white-collar world.

This review is going to be all positive, because the book I read by the independent publisher, Torrey Press, from Salt Lake City, who gives 2% of their sales “to not-for-profit environmental organizations and funds a scholarship for up-and-coming writers at colleges throughout the West” has published an incredible debut novel by Jay Treiber.

Everything about this book, from the look (cover by Rick Whipple/Sky Island Studio) and feel, to the writing and story is top-notch.  Think of a more lyrical and wordy Cormac McCarthy and you have Spirit Walk.  I think it’s better than McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which isn’t really saying much because I didn’t find that novel all that great, but when a debut writer gets compared to one of our best living writers—I realize it’s only me doing the comparing, but I’ve read a lot, so that shouldn’t diminish the comparison, anyway—this book is that good!

As you might imagine, the Land plays a huge part of the story, but mostly it’s the people, beginning with a college professor, who gets an unexpected campus visit one day by an elderly lady from his past.  He needs to come home, she tells him.  There is some unfinished business—he knows it, she knows it, everybody knows it.  The professor, Kevin, drinks too much and is recently divorced, so what’s he going to say?  My life is fine?  He knows better.

So, can you ever go home again?  Sometimes you have to, and Kevin does, but soon ends up in a bar fight with a black eye.  And that’s really all I’m going to say about the plot.  It is wonderfully original literary thriller and had the same “page-turning” quality as House of Sand and Fog.

Here is a partial paragraph that I highlighted, not for any particular reason, except you have to admire a guy who talks himself into drinking beer in the morning:

O.D. decided a machaca burrito and two beers were not only in order but appropriate to start the long day’s vigil.  He had to be able to steady his nerves and concentrate, and food and beer were the best way to do that (180).

Sounds like a good reason to me.  The paragraph before that one, describing O.D.’s huge belly and how his co-workers became so concerned about the loss of his “comforting physique” that they brought pies and donuts to the office until he was back to normal, is better, but it was too long.  I’m already at 4 pages.

So, buy this book, contribute to a wonderful publisher, and give 2% to the West, reading a great book in the bargain (it’s a “win-win,” some business slang to go along with the prison slang).  Someone should also nominate this book for a prize—even a Pulitzer or National Book Award would not be unthinkable.  And sign the back of your driver’s license—or whatever it takes to become an organ donor—in honor of a sad story that ended—well, as good as anything ever ends here.

Spirit Walk
Jay Treiber
Torrey House Press (May 2014)

Buy from Amazon

About the Author

Curtis Dawkins is BULL's chief book reviewer. He earned an M.F.A. from Western Michigan University and is currently an inmate at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan. His short story collection, Prison Ink, is the first release from BULL Books.