|Posted on May 4, 2012 at 6:00 AM|
Les Edgerton's The Bitch is one of the most arresting crime novels I've read this year (no pun intended). It chronicles ex-con Jake Bishop's attempts to avoid "The Bitch," a slang term for "habitual criminal." It's similar to the Three Strike Rule. Jake already has two strikes when a prison buddy calls him up for one last job.
The yarn itself was compelling on its own, but I suspected I was reading a story-within-a-story. Author Edgerton served time in the same prison as his Jake character. His colorful past is already well-known in the crime fiction world, but I still wanted to pick his brain. How much of the story was true?
Fortunately, the author was more than happy to do an interview. Here it is, unedited and unfiltered. Just 100% pure Edgerton. Read the whole thing. His real-world answers could put fiction to shame.
P.S. Click here to buy The Bitch on Amazon. It's available at all other fine e-retailers, too.
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BEN: It's impossible not to compare the lead character in The Bitch, Jake Bishop, to yourself. You both did time in Indiana's Pendleton Correctional Facility, for example. Was The Bitch catharic to write?
LES: First, a small correction. When I was in prison, it was “Pendleton Reformatory.” Only, it wasn’t a “reformatory,” but one of the two Indiana maximum prisons, the other one being Michigan City. The only difference between them was that cons 30 and younger were sent to Pendleton and cons older than 30 went to Michigan City.
The “correctional facility” is a recent name change and nowadays they have a juvie facility in addition to the main prison. While I was there, then-President Johnson conducted a national study and concluded that Pendleton was “the single worst prison in the U.S.”
And, it was. There were eight riots during my stay, not including the one I walked in on when first sent up.
As to your question, Ben, writing it wasn’t much in the way of a catharsis at all. For a couple of reasons.
One, I’ve written about my experiences there in many of my previous novels and short stories, and so the “catharsis” value has pretty much been exhausted by now.
And, two, I’ve never lost a lot of sleep over my experience there. I was a criminal and going to prison is just part of the deal of being “in the life.” That “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the time” is pretty much the way it is. Just a part of the job description. Criminals are pretty good at compartmentalizing things and when you’re in the joint, you’re in the “zone” and not outside, on the bricks in your mind, and when you’re out on the bricks, you don’t waste a lot of time thinking about the joint.
I see a new breed of criminal today on TV where these guys are crying when they get caught. What kind of punk cries?
BEN: One of the themes throughout The Bitch was having to make a bad choice in the pursuit of something better. For example, kill Person X to save Person Y, yet create a new problem with Person Z. It's almost like the game is rigged. Does this reflect your view of the world, that we're doomed to a certain fate no matter what we choose?
LES: Ah! So you’re asking me if I have a Calvinistic view of life—that predestination thingy!
Well, on Monday’s I think that, and on Tuesdays I don’t. On Wednesdays, I don’t care.
To be honest, on most days I don’t care. I have a different vision of morality and God and all that. Most days, I fit the definition of a nihilist quite accurately. Expediency is what gets me through life.
For instance, I don’t perform criminal activities any longer and it’s not because I had some kind of “come to Jesus” moment or some kind of epiphany. I’ve just weighed the pros and cons of performing a criminal act and since I’ve been there (inside the walls), I have a clear idea of what that’s like and so far I haven’t come across a crime whose possible rewards outweigh the possible penalties.
If I ever do, I’m pretty sure I’m off that good citizen dais and out there doing the crime. But, it’ll have to be the perfect crime with an enormous upside. At my age, to go back to the joint is a certain death sentence and I’m not quite ready for that. Incarceration really is a good deterrent once you’ve experienced it.
BEN: On that same note, Jake is sucked back into the world of crime despite trying to get as far from it as possible. Is this a fear you were exorcising through Jake's character?
LES: Not really, but I can understand Jake completely. He’s the guy I could be if I had a moral view of the universe. Except, he’s really kidding himself that he’s a moral person.
In the end, he’s as nihilistic as I am. Not trying to come across as some kind of “badass” hardened criminal type, but I really don’t feel like I have a lot of fears. I’ve done time, been homeless, been shot at, been stabbed, had just about everything you can imagine thrown at me and can never remember feeling anything at the time than the same thing—that what was happening was interesting and would make great material for my fiction.
Detached is the best way to describe my feelings at any of those times. I’ve always thought “what’s the worst that can happen” in any situation I’ve been in, and never has that “worst thing” been all that bad.
It’s the feeling I had when I was in a shootout with what I thought were cops in a grade school and it’s the feeling I had when my call girl girlfriend Cat had stabbed one of my other girlfriends and was trying to eviscerate me. “What’s the worst that can happen here?”
In those cases (and others) the worst was death, and hey… nobody gets out of life alive, so what’s the fuss all about? It’s going to happen to all of us (death) and if you worry about it, it seems to me that you’re kind of… what’s the word?... oh, yeah… stupid. It’s going to happen at some time, so when it does what’s awakened is a feeling of avid curiosity. What’s it going to be like?
BEN: "The Bitch" refers to the slang term for "habitual" criminal, which others refer to as the "Three Strike Rule." Wind up in prison three times, and you're "out" for life. Advocates of these laws say they deter crime. Yet in your novel, it seems to encourage it. Jake will do anything - no matter how extreme - to avoid a third term in Pendleton. Which side of this issue do you fall on?
LES: These “law and order” types—politicians and the media, especially—don’t have a clue what deters crime. Or, rather, I suspect they do, but their agenda isn’t to keep people out of prison. It’s to gain votes for pols (for being seen as “tough on crime") and for viewers and readers (in the case of media.). It’s sexy and it’s popular to appear to exhibit the attitude of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” The things they do don’t deter crime in the least.
Here’s what deters crime. Barber school. (I’m using this as an example.) When I was in Pendleton, I had a much higher degree of education than most—I’d graduated high school and spent four years in the Navy and was a radioman and cryptographer. The average educational level of my fellow inmates was about third grade. When most of these guys got out—and most do get out, which straights don’t seem to realize will happen—they have no skills to gain any kind of meaningful employment. Which means, they’ll be on the street again, with no way to gain money for a meal, for a place to crash, for any of that. So, they’ll end up doing what they know how to do. Stick up a 7-11, sell drugs, break into a place.
Well, Pendleton at that time operated under the philosophy of rehabilitation. They actually meant it. The barber school was the best “lick” in the place and inmates fought over getting in. The reason was, the training was the best in the country and as a result barber shop and hairstyle salons were waiting in line to hire us. On the bricks, a guy in a civilian barber school got to cut maybe 1-2 heads of hair a day. He went to school for seven months. In Pendleton, we cut 12-14 heads a day. For at least two years and often a lot longer. When we were released, we were just far, far better at cutting hair than anyone else. Our services were valued and highly. I had to field offers of employment from literally hundreds of places. Guys from civilian barber and beauty schools couldn’t buy a job. They took our leavings, basically.
The result was, about 82% of us stayed on the bricks. We made serious money and got married. Bought homes, joined the Rotary, had kids and coached Little League. Why? Because we had excellent jobs. I was making $500 a week in 1968, which was great money in those days and it went up from there. Legitimately.
And, as great as the barber school was, it was virtually the only program in Pendleton that had this kind of success rate. The reason was we learned a very marketable skill. The second-best lick was the machine shop. Theoretically, guys could learn to be machinists and go out and secure a good job. The problem was, the machinery they learned on was outdated by at least 50 years and so the inmate who’d gone through that program wasn’t much better off than the guy who worked in the laundry or in the chow hall. The barber school program was a huge success and showed what was possible. Very few guys who went through the barber school came back.
But then… civilian barber students started protesting that all the good jobs were going to ex-cons and support for the program went away… Lock ‘em up and throw away the key…
The thing is, nothing the “authorities” do these days deters crime. I can’t think of a single thing. Warehousing criminals is the worst thing to ever happen for a lot of reasons space doesn’t allow me to go into here. What’s needed is a realistic look at criminals and prisons and the wrong-minded approach pervasive in corrections today, but that’s a pipe dream. Too many people making a lot of money off crime and I’m not referring to the criminals.
BEN: "Prison rape" is often the punchline in a joke. The Bitch takes a different approach and details the long-term psychological damage of rapes behind bars. The survivors might be prisoners, but they're still human beings. Is that a point you were trying to make?
LES: First of all, “prison rape” doesn’t go on nearly as much as straights think it does. It’s actually fairly rare. If one were to believe movies, books, and comedians, one would think it’s all that goes on in the joint. And, it doesn’t.
In fact, in my two+ years inside, among over 2,000 inmates, I was aware of maybe 5-10 such instances. There were more going on, I’m aware, but those were all I was aware of. This is one of the biggest myths perpetuated. It’s not a sexual thing—it’s a power thing and most often between blacks and whites. Whites don’t rape blacks as a rule, but blacks will often try to rape whites. In their minds, shows they’re in control.
I got hit on twice in two years. The first was in jail, not prison, so only one time in prison. And, that came about after I got my parole and made the mistake of talking about it. (You don’t tell anyone as there are lots of guys who can’t stand it that someone’s getting out and they’re not and they try their best to fuck up a guy’s parole.) A black guy got in my barber’s chair (a no-no—blacks don’t sit in white barber’s chairs and vice versa, unless one of them’s a punk), and told me he was going to make me his kid.
I’d made up my mind what I was going to do if that ever happened and I did exactly that. Grabbed my straight edge and went after him, trying to cut his throat. Chased him all over the barber school and then Jonesy, a black hack, caught me, ran me into the office, locked the door, and took the black inmate over to his dorm. Jonesy could have written me up—and he should have—but he didn’t, which saved my life as I would have lost my parole and I knew if I had to do the whole five years of my bit, I’d have to kill the dude who fronted me and once I did that, I’d be in there the rest of my life. So, Jonesy saved my life, in my opinion.
The guys who get hit on are guys who are all alone. In Pendleton, that meant guys from small towns who weren’t career criminals before and didn’t know anyone. I was from South Bend and had been pulling jobs for years and knew everybody from South Bend and so had all kinds of buddies who had my back as I had theirs. A good example of what happens is one day a new kid came onto our tier from a small town—Tipton—and he seemed like an all-right guy, albeit naïve, and I kind of took him under my wing. Well, a black dude started romancing him (although the kid didn’t realize what he was doing)—giving him cookies, cigarettes and all that.
I warned the kid that he needed to get away from this guy, but he was convinced the black guy was just trying to be friendly. He was. A week later, he’d turned the kid out. Big-time. Not just for himself, but he put the kid on the block. First thing he did was get a ball-peen hammer and knock out all the kid’s front teeth. (Better for blow jobs.) A week after I’d tried to warn him off, the kid was roaming the aisles on movie day, giving blow jobs to other inmates for cigarettes and green, turning them over to his new “friend.” Sad, but he was too ignorant to know when help was offered him.
But, that’s where most rapes come from. It’s just not a common deal at all. It wasn’t something most of us even think about or worry about at all. Seems to happen a lot in movies and in novels written by writers who don’t have a clue.
All that said, I’ve got rape in THE BITCH, don’t I! But, both took place in jail, not prison. One is far more likely to be raped in jail than in prison for several reasons. One, many guys in jail haven’t done time so all they know is from books and movies. So, they try to imitate what they think goes on, especially black guys. Not trying to come across as a racist, but it is what it is.
Second, and more important, guys in jail are hours or mere days away from being under the influence of drugs and that makes you do things and act in ways you wouldn’t when sober. Third, often guys in jail haven’t made the alliances they will in prison and so are more at risk. Jail and prison are vastly different animals.
Your original question was if I was trying to show that survivors or prison rape were still human beings. Well, not consciously. I simply assume they are (still human beings). I think a lot of straights think all criminals are rapists, child-molesters, serial killers and the like. The fact is, the vast majority of convicts are involved in crimes of property more than in crimes of person. Far more guys inside for burglarizing bars and gas stations, for stealing cars, for sticking up 7-11’s, for check-kiting, for assault on the wife who they walked in on as they were banging their best friends, than are in there for the crimes commonly portrayed on TV.
So, yeah; I think most of the guys inside are still human beings. Books, TV and movies are all engaged in sensationalizing prisons and are a long way off from any accurate portrayal. That series on MSNBC is typical bullshit—if a person believed that show, they’d think most inmates are pumping iron all day long or are total nut jobs. Totally unrealistic show, but if they showed the boredom that prison truly is, ratings would plunge.
BEN: You're candid about your colorful past, even writing about it in your bio on your website. Why? As you point out in The Bitch, people can react negatively to finding out one is an ex-con.
LES: For years, I did just that—kept my past secret. Then, I got tired of listening to people who usually had it all wrong. The truth is, most criminals are pretty much like your average citizen. Not that many hang out in strip clubs, have tatts, use drugs and drink like there was no tomorrow. Not that many have killed someone. Not that many have raped or been raped in the joint.
If you took the population of the average prison and set these folks down in the food court of your average mall and dressed them “normally” I doubt if anyone looking at them or listening to them would ever think they were any different than anyone else who might be in the mall. In fact, the average citizen probably talks to an excon every week and doesn’t have a clue. At one time, for instance, I could walk into just about any barbershop in Indiana and almost always someone cutting hair there would be someone I knew from Pendleton. The average lame who came in for their haircut didn’t have a clue. Well, we’re out there in your neighborhood.
Some of us are working in fast food, some are selling insurance, some are working on your car, some are taking your dry cleaning and handing you the pickup ticket, some are managing movie theaters… you name it, ex-cons are doing the same jobs and living the same lives as anyone else. Remember, I was a college prof (still am), was in college and elected student body president, worked as a reporter for The South Bend Tribune, sold Prudential life insurance, worked as a headhunter for an executive recruiting firm—in short, did a whole bunch of jobs that, if you believed bad novels, bad movies, and bad TV wouldn’t be the case. But it is. We’re (ex-cons) are in every segment of life on the bricks and doing virtually any job you can think of.
BEN: Let's wrap up with a lighter question. What would be on the Les Edgerton sandwich?
LES: A tunafish sandwich made with the recipe of this place I used to go to in Bermuda. I’ve never tasted anything like it since. And, I don’t even like tunafish much, but this sandwich was awesome. Second choice, would be fried oysters.
Thanks for having me on, Ben. This was fun!