'Slam' is a snapshot of life on the seedy side of Texas


October 02, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"Slam," by Lewis Shiner," 233 pages, Doubleday, New York, N.Y., $18.95.

DAVE NEVER knew there was a federal prison in the piney woods around Bastrop, Texas, until he landed there for six months on an income tax charge: He wasn't paying any.

Dave's coming out of the Bastrop Federal Correctional Institute when Lewis Shiner's novel "Slam" picks him up.

Actually, his old girl friend Patsy picks him up. Unfortunately, she's got a new boy friend named Marc with a ''c.'' Marc's a kind of a seedy cowboy arsonist, who, as it transpires, does Dave a very good turn, indeed, toward the end of this novel.

Dave leaves Bastrop FCI nine days before his 40th birthday. He's having his birthday party at the end of the book. The novel is the story of his adventures during nine edgy days of parole. He's come through fire and had a kind of rebirth at the end. But the book is more anarchic than apocalyptic. "Slam" is a kind of outlaw novel about contemporary life on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Dave's learned a lot in prison. He learned not to make eye contact in the yard. He learned to sleep no matter what went on around him.

"He also learned that his life, or anybody's, was like a piece of soft wood. He could shape it to a certain extent, but it could also get dented or even broken beyond repair."

Dave learned, too, that prison is not for rehabilitation, or even for punishment. Prisons exist to make prisoners, which I think is one of Lewis Shiner's messages. Dave spends most of the nine days of "Slam" trying to end his existence as a prisoner and to become free.

Dave has an attorney named Fred, who makes lawyer jokes, or rather anti-lawyer jokes. "I've always said a lawyer should never be ashamed of his convictions," Fred tells Dave.

Fred, an old friend of Dave's from his school days, has got him a job as the live-in caretaker for 23 cats to whom an old lady has left her estate.

Dave doesn't much care for cats. But he gets to live in a house on the beach, near Freeport, which is down the coast a ways from Galveston. He has to keep the cats in the house and to keep the house pretty much the way the old lady left it, which turns out to be a whole lot harder than it might seem. Among his problems are a large, indomitable escaped prison kingpin who turns up to deal drugs out of the living room.

And contesting the will are the proprietor of a sort of UFO church who preaches on cable TV and really believes what he preaches and a sexy lady of a certain age who claims to be a relative of the deceased old lady.

So people keep a pretty close eye on Dave and among those people are his parole officer, a fundamentalist Christian named Mrs. Cook, who makes him very, very uneasy. Mrs. Cook wants Dave to memorize word for word the conditions of his parole, and perhaps join her church.

"Experience has shown us that we cannot allow any leeway in the enforcement of these rules," Mrs. Cook says. "You have to understand that the law has made us responsible for your well-being. We intend to take care of you and keep you on the straight and narrow. Do you understand?"

Dave nods.

Mrs. Cook is clearly Shiner's symbol for a rigid, bureaucratic government that afflicts us all. His symbols for freedom are the skateboarders who live down the beach from Dave in a crazy, abandoned cast-concrete folly of a house that looks like a cross between "a French chateau and a fairy castle made of melting ice cream."

The "Slam" of Shiner's title, one notes, means the prison to the prisoners, and it's what skateboarders do when they crack up against a wall.

Dave comes to have great affection for his skateboarder neighbors, especially a skater deb named Mickey, with whom he has quite a lot of hot sex. He also acquires fatherly interest in a 15-year-old kid named Bobby, who uses heroin to ease the pain of a messed-up arm.

Bobby enunciates a kind of skateboard credo: "You got to go on living. You can't sit around and cry because they cut down some trees and pave everything. Concrete is radical. Concrete is the future. You don't cry about it, man, you skate on it."

"Slam" is available at the Enoch Pratt Library.

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