From the start, we know what crime lands ‘Cool Hand’ Luke on the county chain gang: cutting the heads off parking meters. He’s sent up for decapitation of authority, and all that follows bears the symbolic weight of his crime.
Ted Prokash gives it to us another way. Napawaupee County Blues (Expat Press, 2018) describes life inside Huber cell without context for what puts the narrator in stir to begin with. Intentional or not, revealing the crime at the end sets up the hardest truth of all for the miscreants who populate Hotel Napawaupee.
Their incarceration’s not about the crimes they did, unless we admit that their greatest crime, really, is lack of self worth.
These losers—they’re hardly criminals—comprise humanity’s lowest, a ‘basket of deplorables,’ except worse than deplorable they’re pitiable.
Vandalism and delinquency. Drunk and disorderly. Possession of dope, small-time dime-bag sleezeballs, addicts, and castaways.
We get half a dozen memorable characters in a score of linked pieces, a narrative arc that moves through the awful lives of downtrodden wretches.
Narrator James, Insane Blaine, King Tim of Chicago’s Latin Kings, workaday Bob who seems to have it together until he, too, runs off with his employer’s property, sad Skinny Watkins whose unsurprising fate is written in his DNA, and a host of supporting figures named Dave and Josh and Russell and LJ.
The magic Prokash performs on these lives stems from empathy. His portraits—poetic, elegiac—lend dignity to those we might easily dismiss as failures. He renders them pitiable but not pitiful, giving them humanity tainted by tragedy.
Take Insane Blaine. Pitied by teachers for his hand me downs, ignored by his chain-smoking mom between her gas station job and her bar job, beaten and mocked by his stepdad, tricked and teased by the neighborhood kids—even playground girls chuck sand in his eyes and mouth—no wonder ten-year-old Blaine grows up to see prison life through a squinted right eye and a body disfigured by hate symbols his prison stripes can’t hide.
Or the little ditty of Jack and Diane recast in the roles of Steve and Marjorie and Marjorie’s bastard mixed-race offspring, Skinny Watkins, who eases James’ transition to the inside but can’t sustain his cure once he gets out. Two-time loser, third time’s right around the corner with the predictably ignominious demise.
By the time James tells us what got him locked up, we already discerned his original sin. And Ted Prokash makes the revelation a delight, the only possible response to heavy-handed authority.
Napawaupee County Blues is a quick and engaging read, fits well in most pockets, and comes wrapped in a cover with a cool illustration by Sam Pink.