We all like good surprises, but I’ve learned not to look for them. They’re like the animals Turtle-Man catches on Animal Planet’s Call of the Wildman—Sundays at 10 p.m. (Not really a plug, just a favorite of mine.)
If you haven’t seen the show, Turtle-Man is an endearing fellow who wears a leather cowboy hat which in a pinch doubles as a rodent catcher. He’s missing several teeth and has lived his life in the backwoods of Kentucky catching nuisance animals for his neighbors. He sometimes builds non-lethal traps, but usually it comes down to him grabbing the opossum, woodchuck, squirrel, raccoon, mink, fox, etc, with only his gloved hands (except in the case of snapping turtles—his claim to fame—where he simply dives into the brown pond, feeling around the silty bottom until he comes across the dangerous troublemaker) and not even the thick leather gloves of a falconer, but the kind you buy for $2 down at the Ace Hardware.
In a recent episode he tracked an emu that had escaped from her enclosure, and in the ensuing final battle the hundred pound bird got a lightning-fast swipe at Turtle-Man’s head with one of her deadly, velociraptor feet, leaving a bloody welt across his face. The catching of the wild creature usually leaves him bloody, but happy, and sixty-five dollars richer. Or, in the case catching the mink murdering one-by-one an entire barnyard stable of hedgehogs, he received trinkets made from porcupine quills, which he considered priceless.
He’s got a faithful dog, a herding border collie named Lollie, and a couple of otherwise unemployable hangers-on who, like Lollie, may have been found in a roadside ditch—they are there ostensibly to hold the burlap bag when Turtle-Man drops the hissing critter in. He’s got an old truck and a tiny, toothless mother. He’s got a catch-phrase: “Live-Action!” and happy endings on every show—the critter is relocated to a nearby unpeopled area. Like a nightmare dissolving when the alarm clock rings, the people the critter was spooking are visibly relieved that the animal is gone for good. What more could you want in a television show?
Surprises are like those scared animals—you have to surprise them by hiding your desire to catch them. You have to wait patiently for them to wiggle through an unseen crack while your mind drifts to dinner. Your hand is cramped from holding the binder twine tied around the stake propping open the oak barrel and your hungover, trap-builder buddy is snoring under a tractor out back. If the critters know you’re waiting, they’re gone, and it might be a coon’s age before they show their anxious faces in those parts again.
Mail comes every weekday afternoon between 3 and 4. The c.o. walks down the hall with the scuffed and faded yellow mailbag slung over his shoulder. It’s been sorted once in the mailroom, but at the officer’s desk they arrange it according to bunk, from 1 to 120 in A-Ward. Inmates make their way nonchalantly past the desk, and if they have a magazine or newspaper, an officer might stop them, hand them the periodical, or otherwise the letters (you get no junk-mail or bills in prison) and official paperwork. Last Friday I got the first two magazines of my subscription for American Artist and a book written by someone I didn’t know. That was a big day for good surprises.
The book, The Knife and the Butterfly, centers on a tragic 2006 incident in Houston, when a young girl stabbed a rival male gang-member, then went out with her friends to eat Mexican food. The author, Ashley Hope Pérez, grew up in Texas, later working in the Teach for America Corps. My guess is many of her students were tough kids, hard to reach, maddening and occasionally wonderful. The overlooked inner-city youths are frequently lost forever. Their murders happen daily all over the country.
These kids are very hard to gauge, especially when they come to prison. When they come here they have all their defenses up, but once I’ve gotten to know some of them, almost without exception, they are just people like you and me. They aren’t inherently evil, just young and stupid, never having had stable parents to love and nurture them.
That’s why this book is important. “Important” may be a term used too often in blurbs and reviews (it should only be used when the book could truly save lives), but it’s one I don’t think I’ve used in a review before. It’s easy to see these abrasive youngsters dying on the news and dismiss them as somehow deserving of their bloody death. But, as The Knife and the Butterfly makes clear, they have grandmothers and little sisters who love and will miss them—Regina and Meemaw are two of the most touching characters I’ve read about in a long time. The gang-bangers only want what everyone else wants. They only want to leave their mark on the world—in this case that mark takes the form of tagging the buildings and boxcars in Houston with spray-paint, which serves as a perfect metaphor for the transitory nature of all of our marks.
It is an amazing book for too many reasons to go into here. But most exceptional, I think, is the heart with which these difficult kids are portrayed. It’s tricky enough to have a teenage narrator (it never works, as a matter of fact), but on top of that the narrator(s) of this novel would just as soon sock you in the eye as look at you. And yet, they become lovable. They are deserving of love. How did the author do it? That’s the mystery of great writing.
If surprises are like Turtle-Man’s frightened, big-toothed varmints (the skittish animals of the show often have more teeth than the humans), then reading this book is like the surprise that follows a heartbreaking magic trick. The illusion of the life and language of Texas gang-bangers is absolutely perfect.
That may be a far-from-perfect metaphor, and on the stage, I’m not even sure what would turn a magic trick into something heartbreaking. Perhaps the bunny is soiled and dead when the magician pulls him from the top hat. Maybe the assistant is cut in half when she’s “cut in half,” or disappears forever after vanishing from the curtained box. But I know this: For a book to be heartbreaking, the reader must care about the people in it and in here, that’s the biggest surprise of all. Bigger, even, than the albino raccoon Turtle-Man once found under a suburban home.