Les Edgerton writes gut honest hard core crime fiction in a narrative voice that is both compelling and honed. His novel The Rapist, is out now. It is a taut psychological dig into a difficult subject and you can read my blurb of it over at his blog or at Amazon. Les met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about pathology and imprisonment.
Tell us about The Rapist.
The idea to write it came from something that has been part of my writer’s soul for most of my life. That to achieve true greatness, a writer must be willing to go down deep inside to those dark recesses we all possess but which we move heaven and earth to keep others from seeing or knowing about. The true mark of a writer is his willingness to go there and expose those dark places to the light of day… and to his fellow humans, thereby opening himself up to much criticism and ill-thoughts from others.
It’s the place where truth resides.
I’ve always tried to go there and mostly failed. I could get close but never all the way. And then, in the seventies, I discovered Charles Bukowski. And a short story of his titled “The Fiend.” You may have read it. If you did, you either became a fan of Bukowski’s or you hated his guts. Personally, I became a fan.
Basically, it’s a story about a middle-aged guy named Martin Blanchard, who’s been defeated by alcohol. He’s lost his wife and family, two wives, two families, actually, his job, everything. Twenty-seven jobs he’s gone through. That’s a lot of jobs. This guy’s just your basic average slob who can’t leave the juice alone. He’s reduced to living in this squalid apartment, four flights up, and drinking wine. His only source of income is his unemployment checks and money left in parking meters. Badly educated, yet he listens to classical music, preferring Mahler.
He begins to notice this little girl outside playing. He begins to notice she has on these interesting panties… and… you guessed it, he finds himself masturbating. Afterwards, he feels relief. It’s out of my mind, he thinks after he gets off. I’m free again. Only, he’s not. It’s just the beginning of a new obsession, a perversion. For the first time in months, perhaps years, he has an interest. It repels him, but he can’t resist it, either.
At first, he thinks it’s just something weird that overtook him and now it’s out of his system, but after he drinks his last bottle of wine, he sees the little girl outside in the street and begins to get hard again. He decides to go to the store to replenish his wine supply and as he walks outside he notices the little girl and the two little boys have gone into the garage across the street. He finds himself walking into the garage behind them and shutting the doors.
He then proceeds to rape the little girl, in very graphic detail. All the while he’s committing this heinous act, the two boys are asking him questions. They express genuine curiosity and don’t seem to be overly-frightened, exhibiting more of an amoral attitude than anything. Bukowski does something quite skillful here. Instead of having the two young boys be scared shitless, he shows them to be mainly curious about what Martin is doing to their friend. These kids are witnessing something pretty horrible, but then they’re just kids, and there’s an amoral innocence about their reaction that blurs the morality. Raping a child is without doubt a truly horrible crime, with no redemption in such an act, but since it’s hard to wholeheartedly condemn the two boys the reader is moved into an area of moral ambiguity that creates a kind of complicity with the boys. The reader then becomes, like the boys, a kind of voyeur to Martin’s act. This also helps humanize the monster Martin is, inasmuch as any such person could be seen as having human qualities.
The kicker for me in this story was a line a little earlier on in the story, as Martin is kissing the child, just before he rapes her, and the narrator says, “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells–one hers, the other his.” When I read this line, it was as if I’d been struck by literary lightening.
Bukowski doesn’t excuse this motherfucker, nor make him out to be anything but the monster he is, but he does show us something about the guy which we probably wouldn’t have known in any other way. He shows us there’s a human being running around inside the guy someplace. A somewhat troubled human being, but one of us at any rate. And this is what literature should be all about. Showing us to one another. The good, the bad, the ugly as well as the downright perverts.
Almost any other writer that this same story would have occurred to, would have taken the point of view of anyone but Martin’s. The little girl herself, the boys, the cops who came and arrested him, the parents. An adult who discovered the crime. A fly on the wall. To write this kind of story from the pov of the perp, in my mind, is the stuff of literary courage. It’s very dangerous stuff. It you don’t bring it off, it almost makes the writer appear as if he excused Martin for what he’s done, which would have made Bukowski an even bigger monster than his character. What he’s been able to do is present Martin exactly as he is – a hideous member of the human race… but amazingly, yet… still a member of humanity.
With that one little sentence, “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells–one hers, the other his,” Bukowski gives us an insight that is deeply profound. And that, in my opinion, is what great writing is all about.
I wanted to write something as honest and as brave and as—yes, as brilliant as Bukowski did. Others will judge whether I achieved that or not.
I don’t expect everyone to like it. I don’t think Bukowski expected everyone to like his story, either. But the people I respect will, I think. The folks who like their truth served straight, no ice, no water, no chaser. Martin Blanchard, no matter how heinous he might be, didn’t arrive at the place he did without help. Neither did Truman Ferris Pinter. We are all responsible for these guys. Telling their story may help some of us realize that. And that’s worth something, I think.
My hope is that it will be seen as a “dangerous book” especially those nitwits who subscribe to that reprehensible and enslaving statist philosophy of being “politically correct.” A dangerous book as defined by Jean Paulhan who, in the preface to the infamous Story of O, wrote, “Dangerous books are those that restore us to our natural state of danger.”
To what extent are prison guards sexually maimed?
Wow! This is a question I’ve never been asked!
To be honest, I think it would be a mistake to categorize an entire identifiable segment of society (such as prison guards) by a single characteristic or feature. I experienced something like that when I worked as a hairstylist. A large number of people think of male hairstylists as being gay and while yes, there are many who are, there are also many who aren’t. I wasn’t and in most of the salons I worked most of the guys were also heterosexual. Although, I came to the trade in a somewhat different way. It wasn’t my dream in second grade to cut hair. I got into it simply because barber school was the best lick in the joint. We all knew upon graduation from the school meant we’d be walking into good-paying jobs upon our release. Plus, it was a great gig inside because the prison barbers made a lot of money. If you wanted a good haircut, you paid your barber a couple of packs of cigarettes. When your wife or girlfriend was coming to visit, you paid to look good. And, we were trained as barbers, not beauticians, which didn’t have the same connotation. I got into styling women’s hair once I hit the bricks and found out there was much better money to make with a female clientele than a male one. Plus, beaucoup opportunities to get laid…
But, I digress. I only included the above to demonstrate that it’s a mistake to assume that everyone in a particular trade or profession shares the same characteristics universally. Yes, there are many male hairstylists are gay… and many who aren’t. There are also many prison guards who I’m convinced have that “latent sexual pathology” you asked about and perhaps more so than in many other walks of life. Like any stereotype or widely-assumed beliefs like that, there exists a germ of truth behind it.
While many of the hacks I knew inside were decent men, there were also many who did, indeed, exhibit that kind of pathology. Enough so that we commonly joked about it. There is a noticeable breed of man that gravitates toward being a prison guard. The same sort of guy who, when a .38 would serve his purposes, owns a .357 or a .44 Magnum. The same sort of guy who drives a Corvette. You kind of assume he’s got a little penis or has sexual or manhood issues. There are more than one who become guards who are the same kind of guy who become rent-a-cops. Again, this isn’t to lump all rent-a-cops into a single category, but there are enough of them this fits that it’s noticeable. Many are guys who desperately want to be state troopers or city cops but can’t join because of education, too-low of an I.Q., or they fail the personality profile. So they take the only job they can that’s close to their dream job. Prison guard.
More than a few are clearly sadistic. You can spot these guys right away. They’re the ones walking with a swagger like they think they’re bad. The ones who are into weight-lifting and taking martial arts classes. Who you can tell have practiced their sneers in front of their bathroom mirrors. Who get their uniforms tailored and roll up their sleeves to show their pecs. You can’t con a con—it’s true—and these guys expose themselves for what they are. What they are is mostly… afraid. They’re scared to death of the inmates, the opposite of what they think they’re portraying to us. These guys are easy to sniff out. Most of us inside wouldn’t be able to spout the psychological terms of “sexual compensation” and the like, but we know guys like this instantly. We had two twin brother guards who worked the “hole” (solitary) who were typical of this kind of hack. Both of them pumped iron, possessed some color of belt in martial arts, went to the firing range regularly to shoot their .357s. You didn’t want to run into them in the hole because we all knew what they were. When they were in power and knew it, their true nature would come out. These assholes had a little “game” they played where they’d take out an inmate around midnight and one would hold the guy down on the concrete floor and the other one would pick up and drop one of the heavy wooden benches on his melon. Great fun! Thing is, they never did this to a guy who was a true bad ass and who might do something about it when they got out and ran into these hacks in population. Nope. They always picked on the weaker inmates. These were the hacks who, when a riot went down, were the first to get to a safe place. No way they wanted to be the guys going into the yard to corral inmates. Not unless they were fully armed or had a bunch of their fellow guards with them.
So, yes, there are a disproportionate percentage of hacks who are sadistic, just as there are a disproportionate percentage of male hairstylists who are gay as compared to the general population. If life insurance salesmen as a group contain 3% who are gay or sadistic, hairdressers and prison guards may contain 10 or 20% or even more, say. It’s important to note that there are a large number in both instances who aren’t. And, today it’s my understanding that they require more accurate personality profiles to weed out at least the more sadistic ones. I guess those guys end up getting jobs as rent-a-cops and make monthly payments on their “Vettes”… That they drive to their karate classes and the gym to pump iron…
Not that all guys who drive “Vettes” or pump iron or practice karate are closet gays or are sadistic or walk around scared of everyone they encounter in titty bars and swaggering to hide their true feelings. Many of them aren’t, I’m sure. Well, pretty sure…
My experience is that a large number of hacks are sadists and they just naturally gravitate toward jobs like this, just as pedophiles are attracted to positions as male elementary teachers, Boy Scout leaders and Catholic priests. That doesn’t mean that all of those jobs are filled with pedophiles, but there are a larger percentage in those positions than are say in the ranks of life insurance salesmen…
I knew many, many sadistic hacks. The thing is, most are afraid of convicts and that’s probably why they aren’t more overt. It isn’t the other inmates you have to watch your back for as much as it is some of the guards… Mostly, though, they’re funny to watch, strutting around like they could actually break bad in a one-on-one situation with someone their own size and equally armed.
What’s funny is that when I was in, hacks weren’t paid well at all. That meant that it attracted the worst of white guys because of the low pay–anyone who had any kind of skill could qualify for a higher–priced job–and the best of the black guys for whom the pay was higher than most jobs they could qualify for. It’s the exact reverse of the criminal population where the worst convicts are blacks and the “best” are whites.
It’s like the rape myth. It’s almost exclusively black inmates who rape whites. In fact, I’ve never seen the opposite although I suppose it happens in rare instances somewhere. Whites view this as a homosexual act and the black culture views it as a “manly” thing. We (whites) could never understand that, but it’s true. It’s not a matter for blacks that they’ve been deprived of sex for a long time and turn to other men; the minute many of them enter the gates, they’re trying to nail a white guy. They haven’t been inside long enough to get “horny.”
And, the minute, they get set free, they no longer think about raping some dude. Black inmates could work anywhere inside the walls and not ever have to worry about whites ganging up on them to pop their brown eye. Whites couldn’t. In jobs like the laundry, the only whites who would work there were punks. The laundry was all black-controlled and populated. By the same token, whites ran the body and machine shops and were the majority. When a black guy got assigned there, he never had to worry like the white guy in the laundry did about getting ganged up on and raped. Just wouldn’t happen. It’s purely a racial thing, which nobody will say because it’s not politically correct.
You write with gut level honesty about a difficult subject in The Rapist, and you tell the story in a compelling style. Do you think political correctness is limiting literature?
Great question! And, no, I don’t think it’s limiting literature—I think it’s killing it. Absolutely destroying it, and I don’t see this statement as hyperbole in the least. I feel it’s the single biggest threat to a free society that’s ever been perpetuated on us by the nannies who want to be in charge of us. Free expression is at the very heart of personal freedom and truth. The end result of this odious philosophy is to become the equivalent of Pravda in our media (Wait! That’s already upon us!) and will only get worse unless we begin to take back our rights.
Like many grandiose ideas, there is a noble intent at the center of this outlook, but also like many other popular notions, it has been perverted until it is the antithesis of what it originated as. Being PC nowadays amounts to out and out censorship in my opinion. For every writer like Bukowski and William Vollmann who break through and become a cult hero, there are hundreds of writers who are being stifled, vilified, and destroyed, simply because they do not preach the party’s message nor do they conform to the parameters set up by the PC folks who seem to be in charge. Too often they are stifling themselves by trying to placate society. What used to be considered simply bad taste nowadays takes on a more sinister connotation and that is dangerous if we value freedom of thought and value the time-honored tradition of the debate of ideas which is the only viable method for advancing knowledge and understanding.
I had a novel of mine recently turned down by a famous editor at a crime publishing house because he said he thought it would “offend the PC folks.” If I told you who it was, you’d be shocked. And, I’d probably be sued. And, yet, I see this asshole at events like Bouchercon being admired and lauded by writers as being on the “cutting edge” of crime fiction and “bravely publishing dark fiction.” I’m dying to tell you who it is, Richard, and will, in private. I can’t risk being sued as I don’t have enough to buy gas money to go across town. Kind of how PCism works on a practical level…
Plato himself spoke about political correctness in The Republic, when he said:
“Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only.”
How about that.
The worst offenders—besides repressive governments—are academics. Here’s what one academic himself, author Gordon Weaver, said to me in an interview in 1997, that, “If our special interest, as writers and/or editors, is the precise use of language toward the end of a viable perception of and effect on reality, we may argue there is some virtue implicit in any utterance (written or oral) that confronts the consensus of any gathering.” He gives an example. “There is a cost that will be paid by all concerned if one tells a Polack joke in the presence of Poles, but I contend the cost is greater if one stifles or sanitizes the anecdote.”
By the way, Gordon was let go by his college employer because he wasn’t a member of the prominent political faction and his ideas didn’t sit well with the powers that were…
Gordon has something here, I think. Weaver also told me that academicians are perhaps the newest bullies on the censorship block and perhaps the most dangerous of all. He stated that, “There is a greater danger, it seems to me, when the censors come from the ranks of the presumably ‘enlightened’. It is not surprising that a number of college and university communities nurture factions who wish to control free speech; it is unsettling when more sophisticated citizens (faculty) add their clout to movements desiring to police our utterance in the interests of what minority or another deems politically incorrect.”
I go to Gordon Weaver once again, who said it as best as it can be said. “Censorship from without is bad for the language, bad for those who speak or write it; self-imposed censorship, whatever the motive is worse. If you won’t say what you think, you run the risk of losing the powers of both speech and thought. I suspect we’ll be safe just as long as we refuse to accept censorship for anyone.”
Again, I quote Gordon Weaver for perhaps the best take on the situation. “If the king is naked, we’re all (including the king) better served if someone says so.”
I wrote these sentiments for my MFA graduating address to the student body and faculty at Vermont College in 1997. I wouldn’t change a word of any of this. I think it prophesied clearly where political correctness has taken us to today.
So, yes, I think political correctness is killing literature. And freedom.
BTW, if anyone’s interested, these remarks and many others on this subject are included in an essay which was in my short story collection titled GUMBO YA-YA, published by Snubnose Press.
What are you working on now?
Oh! You mean writing-wise!
About thirty different projects, actually, but the main ones at present are rewrites/edits of my memoir, Adrenaline Junkie, a few last edits of my black comedy novel, The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping, and a new thriller, working title, The Fixer.
I avoid talking about stuff I’m writing at present because if I talk about it very much, I find I’m “written out” for the day. When I cut hair for a living, most of my clients would ask about the current novel and I’d tell them all about it. Fifteen-twenty times a day… I discovered after too long of doing this that when I went home that night, I was pretty well written out. I’d been “writing” the book all day long and had lost the creative energy I should have saved for the actual work. Once I quit talking about it to everyone, my output increased greatly and the excitement returned. So, not trying to avoid your question, but explaining why my answer here is uncharacteristically short!
I just want to thank you for the opportunity to get the word out about The Rapist, Richard. You do so much for your fellow writers and I think I speak for all of us whose lives you’ve touched that we appreciate you and your efforts on our behalf. It’s a decided honor to be interviewed by the guy who I firmly believe is the single best interviewer working today. (And, a pretty fair country writer himself…) I just appreciate your help in publicizing The Rapist. I think this book is the best work I’ve ever done and it’s clearly a book that some will like or even love… and others will detest. That’s okay. If a writer writes something everyone likes, he’s probably writing for Guideposts. If I didn’t get at least some folks who are uncomfortable with a particular book, I’d think I’d failed as a writer and become a typist preaching to the choir. Our job as writers is to create an emotional reaction in readers. Hope I’ll achieve that with this one. I suspect I will…
Thank you, sir.
His blog is here.