In “Penned,” the eighth and last story in this collection set in and around Reno, Nevada, a group of prisoners in the Ormsby Conservation Camp Horse Gentling program rustle-up and then break wild horses to sell three months later at a public auction. Even if the paring of the inmates and horses isn’t intentional, the juxtaposition of the subjects suggests that felons are beautiful, wild animals captured and diminished by breaking them in the time-honored tradition of penning them in cages.
“Penned” isn’t the top story in the collection. It’s middling, at best, beginning confusingly in the point of view of a horse, Iago. The story remained confusing even in retrospect—after I had thought about it for a couple of days—because Iago is one of the horses in the round-up, but he’s there in the beginning acting as a “Judas” horse (that appellation sounds legitimate, like a term wranglers actually use, but I don’t know for sure) leading the confused horses to capture. How can Iago be the Judas horse for the group of horses he was captured wild in?
Soon after being corralled, Iago kicks an inmate in the face, badly (as you can probably imagine) injuring him. Later the horse is not auctioned, but is given to a contractor who is part of the professional team that helps gather stock for the auctions. Iago will then become the Judas horse. The prisoner who broke him is disgusted by the fact that his beloved horse will become a snitch. They go for one last ride before they are separated forever.
The best things about “Penned” are, 1) It reminded me of that famous movie, The Misfits, also about rustling horses in Nevada, most well-known, though, for Marilyn Monroe’s mental and emotional deterioration during the shooting. The writing, by Monroe’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Arthur Miller, is brilliant—perfectly fitted to the dwindling herds of wild mustangs. The sexual politics in the movie are disturbing—Marilyn is basically a hyper-sexualized little girl, chased and lusted over by much older men: A mirror of her actual life. And, 2) the physical details regarding prison life are actually not too far off.
No storyteller in any of the arts gets the details right. Take as a recent example, the Oscar-nominated Flight: A decent movie starring Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot (SPOILER ALERT) who ends up in prison for flying like an ace in an emergency and saving lives, while under the influence. As many car drivers claim, this jet pilot really could control his vehicle better after he’d had a few! At the end, the pilot’s estranged son visits him in the joint to gather information for a college English paper about his infamous father. The two of them meet outdoors at a picnic table. They have plenty of space and privacy. The pilot’s son brings in a notebook and pencil. Also, a tape recorder.
There are no outdoor visits, and you can’t bring in your own notebook, pencil, or tape recorder. Come and visit me someday and you will quickly realize how ridiculous that idea is. I don’t know how writers come up with all this; they must guess at what feels realistically allowed. The wrong information about prison life is maddening to me and the people close to me, and if I don’t accomplish anything else in my writing career, I hope to become known as the go-to guy for true prison details.
I’d venture to say that every young writer has written at least one story about someone locked up, just as we have all written one or two about insanity and asylums. But when that writer grows up, when that writer is writing books and those books are being published—when movies and TV shows are being made and that writer is writing them, there comes a time when that alien, restricted, fascinating world must be represented truthfully.
Like I said, Mr. Maynard, whose story doesn’t really take place in prison anyway, but outside in the horse-gentling program, so this reproof isn’t really for him. For the writer to guess, figuring, “Ah, it’s good enough,” is disrespective and dismissive of inmates—people who have largely been dismissed their entire lives.
If you want to write about prison, or jail, or anything having to do with doing time, from here on out, that right needs to be earned. It’s very easy—get in contact with one of the more than 2,000,000 inmates in the United States, and ask them. These are people we are talking about, not some species of mountain coyote whose living conditions demands speculation because the exactly answer isn’t known. The writer owes it to everyone to get the details of the prisoners’ ridiculously long sentences behind bars correct. Perhaps if more people cared enough to become even slightly involved, our justice and penal system wouldn’t be so dysfunctional.
In 2008 I read David Sedaris’s latest book of essays, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I have read all of Sedaris’s non-fiction, and I often laugh so loud I’ve awakened people. He is a comedic genius, and I wrote him a letter thanking him for the humor he had brought to my prison life. I told him that I was in his debt, and I offered to provide details free of charge regarding all things prison-related. If you are a fan of Sedaris you’ll know that he often humorously speculates on his imaginary stints in make-believe prison. I sent the letter to his publisher, and a month later came a response with the return address of Paris(!). His letter to me was very kind, of course, and ended with this: “Thank you for offering to answer my prison questions. I’ll probably take you up on that.” He hasn’t, but that doesn’t mean he won’t someday. I will here extend the offer to any other writer.
The best story in Grind has nothing, really, to do with Reno. It is a wonderful snow-skiing, corporate sabotage adventure, called “Steep.” There are great characters, high explosives, forbidden flirting, a good plot, and that warm coziness of ski lodges and skirting death on perilous slopes. “Steep” also has the strongest ending: “Doug walked into the living room and found his wife curled around her body pillow on the couch, staring out the front window toward the mountain. It had started to snow.” (107).
Prior to the ending of “Steep,” Mr. Maynard had some issues with endings in this collection—many of the stories and abruptly with someone dead (in the eight stories, there are 5 dead and 1 disappeared), and awkward last sentences such as this: “All at once, the air came alive with a cacophony of sirens” (43).
The formula for a majority of the pieces in Grind gives a short introduction for two characters, then has them intersect. It’s a perfectly workable formula, generally more at home in novels. I think Maynard will be a very good novelist. He is not a bad short story writer, and there is a lot to like about this collection. The setting, Reno, is a wonderful place for all kinds of people to do things perfect for fiction. The writing is really good, featuring sentences like, “His muddled memory flipped like a deck of cards” (46). And, “He dimmed the lights, sang along to his favorite song (he’d been called “crazy” since he was a boy and liked to pretend she sang it just for him) and fell asleep, lulled by the vibration of his idling engine and Patsy’s sweet Shenandoah twang” (69). Also, the subjects Maynard chooses shows an impressive sense of the dramatic: a disturbed man winning a huge jackpot; three topless teenagers sunbathing on a roof watching a doomed air-race; a boy/man driving his empty semi around nighttime Reno.
So, look forward to Mark Maynard’s next. Here is my hopeful prediction: A novel set in Reno with his usual great writing, and characters having believable, well-researched jobs, preferably in a casino where we get to learn the ins and outs of a traditional or invented game. There will be fewer dead prisoners than his debut collection. However, if there is an inmate(s), the author will do the right thing by asking someone who knows what the days and nights are really like.