Prior to last week, my only experience with tear gas occurred when I was in high school. My family owned a grocery store I had a key to, and under one of the two cash registers, my grandfather kept a small caliber semi-automatic pistol about half the size of a man’s hand. Instead of actual .22 shells in the magazine, it allegedly contained capsules of tear gas. Grandpa Dawkins was a beloved and generous man, but a well-known exaggerator and teller of tall tales, so, it was hard to know whether the gun actually contained tear gas, or just blanks. He would not have kept a gun loaded with .22 cartridges where kids could have gotten to it.

So, one night several hours after closing, several of us high school boys had gathered there drinking Cokes, eating chips and candy bars, decided what to do, and, well, like some famous playwright said about a gun appearing in Act 1 getting fired by Act 3, someone (probably me) ended up firing the gun towards the ceiling, just to find out.
It took a few seconds and our eyes began burning, we coughed and sneezed, rushing to the large sink behind the meat counter to drench our faces in cool water. I’m sure we exaggerated the effects, but there very definitely were effects, which we regaled our schoolmates with the next day. It was a very small school in a very small town, so what passed for excitement was sometimes very little.

One night last week, the E.R.T. (Emergency Response Team, or as inmates refer to them: the Goon Squad) extracted a man from his cell on I-2. The E.R.T. are the c.o.’s you’ve perhaps seen on TV who dress in protective gear with shields and gas masks, who pull by force an uncooperative prisoner from his cell. These c.o.’s have to be ready for anything, including weapons and “homemade” gas: fermenting human waste.

This particular extraction apparently required tear gas and through the open windows or ventilation system, the gas found its way to sections of the blocks around the actual gassing. We didn’t know they were extricating or gassing someone, of course, so I had no idea what was going on when my eyes began watering, my throat burned, and I began to sneeze.

The effects lasted for about an hour. After a few minutes a couple of the more experienced inmates knew that gas had been deployed, telling the less seasoned of us. It is hard to fathom what the effects would be concentrated in a small cell (or, as I wondered, mustard gas in a squalid, wet, rat-infested foxhole during WWI), but if you want to replicate what 2 floors removed feels like, take one of those little packets of pepper you sometimes find at food stands or your less formal restaurants, pour the contents into the palm of your hand, then snort it. My recent “gassing” was several magnitudes harsher than Grandpa’s robbery deterrent.

Jim Ruland has probably been gassed, not because of his Navy veteran status, but because he is a longtime writer for punk rock zines, according to his bio. I think that to be a frequenter of clubs where punk is featured, part of the training involves tear gas, and razors jammed into your ear holes. You have to be prepared for toxic stage shenanigans.

I’m not sure what “punk” writing would look like, but Forest of Fortune might be a good example. It is a well-written novel about a Native American casino, and three people in the casino’s orbit: Alice, Lupita, and Pemberton. Like a punk song, there is no traditional plot, just experience. There is a lot of drug use by Pemberton (in fact, on page 200, Pemberton is given “a quarter key” of cocaine by his dealer/friend D.D., and ¼ kilogram is 250 grams. That is A LOT—not to mention $25,000 worth—of any powdery drug, and he snorts it all himself in about 4 months, which is about 2 grams per day, with no reported deleterious effects—physical or psychiatric—stretching-to-the-point-of-breaking believability in logical consequences), a transplanted copywriter, trying to forget his fiancé in San Diego who had had enough of his misdeeds.

The depressed aura of desperation common in casinos, Indian or otherwise, keeps any real light from shining through. It’s bleak, but not too bleak. Ruland makes great use of the casino environs and the odd accoutrements scattered around. He gives the same impressive treatment even to characters who don’t actually appear. For example, this hoped-for reporter not covering a tribal consecration ceremony:

“The reporter was an attractive woman in her forties named Jill D. Dean. Pemberton was hoping Channel 6 would send Pat Hamilton, a fixture on the L.A. morning show circuit who’d been exiled to San Diego on account of his extracurricular shenanigans . . . a practice which came to light after he punched a transsexual prostitute . . . was subsequently banned from Indian gaming establishments . . . if you messed with one tribe, you messed with them all, especially if you were a Caucasian fuckhead like Pat Hamilton (96).”

My personal taste is for more plot, for something to “resolve.” This lack of satisfying resolution I take it, is the “punk” part of the writing, which is the point. At the end, the three characters’ futures seem darker than before. That is my only knock against the book, which is not to say I didn’t like it, because I did, and I think Ruland is one of the most interesting writers I’ve come across lately.

Despite the lack of traditional character arc, there is something very solid about the events and writing in Forest of Fortune. Ruland has written for punk rock zines for more than twenty years. It’s nice to read someone who has paid their dues, just as it’s nice to see a band that has toiled for years in obscurity finally get a big break. You can really tell the difference: there’s a foundation of experience and work. It feels less about the fireworks of publication common with new voices, and more about the essential work of getting there.

Forest of Fortune
Jim Ruland
Tyrus Books (August 2014)

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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.