The Hope We Seek

The Hope We Seek

Tattoos are a lot like writing short stories:  they are simple, perfect, easy and painless when conceived in the mind, but in reality they are painful, and they never come out as beautifully perfect as it was initially imagined.

About seven years ago when I had a bunky who did tattoos, I conceived of a vast project where all of my favorite literary quotes would be printed forever across my torso (all of the proposed quotes are available in full here).

In older books—before computers or word processors—the type is never perfectly aligned.  I really loved that rustic and charming imperfection of books printed by, I assume, printing presses.  That is the way I imagined the font and look of the tattooed typeface.  So, we began with the first two sentences of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow:  “A screaming comes across the sky.  It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”  I don’t want to get into a big discussion about the complexity of this beginning (if it has happened before, why then is there nothing to compare it to now?), how it’s philosophical and weird and perfectly vague, but here is my take on it after thinking about it for several years:  Screaming Nazi V2’s slamming into London is comparable to nothing—every time, no matter how many times it happens, it’s new and terrifying.

Anyway, it’s a powerful beginning to a great book.  We got five words into the tattoo when my bunky—a young man called “Bobby Hill” because of his resemblance to the kid from King of the Hill—was cleaning part of his tattoo gun (an adapted motor from a cassette player) as a c.o. walking his regular round in reverse saw the gun, confiscated it, and wrote Bobby a ticket for “Dangerous Contraband.”  And that is where the quote stood for a few months.

It went on like that—a couple of words here, a couple of words there—for a year or so.  Nineteen words doesn’t seem like a lot, but when every letter (there are 78 by my count) is done in secrecy and carved into your flesh with a crude needle, well, every word stings and bleeds and feels like an entire book.

Skip forward to February 2014.  All that was left of the Pynchon quote was, “compare it to now.”  I had given up on the other quotes.  It’s simply impractical, and I may have outgrown my desire for tattoos—unless the Detroit Tigers win a World Series, then I’ll gladly get that triumph inked under the old English D on my left inner arm.

Last Sunday a man I had known at the prison in Muskegon finally finished the quote.  I’ll call him “Tron” and will say only that he speaks with a fairly heavy Asian accent, though he has spent most of his life in East Los Angeles.  He came to Grand Rapids for a week over a decade ago, and ended up in a situation where someone died.  He was convicted of 2nd degree homicide and may never leave Michigan.  Tron was a bit of a hero at the prison in Muskegon after he severely beat a man called “Lucky” whom none of us liked.  Lucky played softball and was right up there with the most abrasive people I have ever known (he was “lucky” no one killed him with a softball bat on the field).  Tron and Lucky both worked preparing food in the chow hall, and one day Tron, sick of Lucky’s mouthy nonsense, picked up a heavy, stainless-steel water pitcher and began beating Lucky about the head and face with it.  Word has it Tron would have killed him had an officer not been alerted by Lucky’s screams.

Tron’s current bunky “Fu,” a pudgy Vietnamese man missing his front teeth, kept an eye on the hall, and within an hour, the four words were finally finished, usiing the straightened spring from an ink pen as a needle.

Tron, who also speaks Cantonese, and Fu often speak in Vietnamese. But while we waited for the door to open at 9:20 a.m. when half-time for yard is called, Fu got on his bunk and began talking in English about how sexy Jennifer Aniston was as he watched an episode of Friends.  “That was twenty years ago,” I said.  “I mean, she’s still pretty . . .”  I refrained from blathering on about Ms. Aniston’s sad record with men and how the widely-syndicated sitcom is devoid of any redeeming value, a symbol of the worse of what television is capable of.

“Demi Moore—she really fuckin’ work out,” he said.  I was hiding behind a locker, against the wall (it’s a major ticket called “Out of Place” to be caught in someone else’s cell).  Fu turned off his little humming sleep apnea machine—the first such machine I’d seen in prison.

“He snore like motherfucker,” Tron said about Fu, then rattled something off in Vietnamese.

They discussed other hot, middle-aged actresses.  Tron, having lived a good portion of his life in L.A., felt he had a finger on the pulse of the superficial and fickle Hollywood scene.  They were quiet for awhile, and then this, by Tron, who was peering down the hallway with a mirror:  “Jussin Beiba ever come prison, I fuck eem jus fo hell of it.”

They argued for awhile about whether The Beibs would be in General Population or not.  He would not, I’m convinced, though I wondered how he might end up in a Michigan prison.  It is not impossible, I suppose.  They discussed possible lyrics of songs Beiber might write about Tron, his new prison boyfriend.

And this brings me to a question about prisoners I have yet to figure out:  Outwardly, 99% are anti-gay, however, a loophole seems to exist if a prisoner is doing the assaulting.  Tron asserted that he would become famous—might, in fact, have an entire album written about him.  Fu thought Tron would end up becoming “Justin’s bitch.”  And then the cell door opened, and I headed down the hall to gather my shower bag to clean up, and to put Vaseline on the new words across my chest.

I’m not sure about the title of this book, The Hope We Seek. It comes across as sort of Young Adult-ish.  Set in the last few years of the 1800’s, I would describe it succinctly as Moby Dick-lite.  It is an allegory about finding God, but here, instead of a white whale, God is gold in vast mines, and is called “Hope.”

The book is pretty amazing on a couple of levels:  1) It is unrelenting in its slow, incessant search for Hope, and 2) The writing is lyrical, accomplished and clear.

The story takes place on an island—I think.  Lyrical writing often leaves me feeling unsure about concrete items such as place and, sometimes, what the hell exactly is going on.  Lyrical writing for a subject like this is appropriate.  There is rarely any concreteness or clarity involved in searching for God.

In the story, a ship wrecks and a group of outsiders begin assimilating with the cultish group already established.  The cult is led by a whip-wielding tyrant named Trevillian.  He is eventually opposed by a former sharp-shooting psychic who arrived on the sunken ship.  There is a bear called “Prowler” who acts as Hope’s trickster/henchman.  The women on the island are put to work as prostitutes, where the men find glimpses of Hope.

Shapero, the author, is also a musician, and along with the book I was sent a CD of corresponding music.  But I don’t actually receive things like CD’s because Michigan prisons don’t allow compact discs.  So, I can’t speak for the music, but the book is good.  It’s very unique—the perfect example of what independent publishers do well.  There’s certainly plenty of tattooable quotes here if one were of a mind to do such a thing, which I no longer am.

The Hope We Seek
Rich Shapero
Outside Reading (March 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.