Morris' 'A Hole': Why lock 'em up?

March 28, 2004|By Lisa Simeone | Lisa Simeone,Special to the Sun

A Hole in the Universe, by Mary McGarry Morris. Viking. 384 pages. $24.95.

Gordon Loomis is a convicted murderer. Jailed at 18, he's just been paroled after 25 years. We're primed to like him from the get-go, and to dislike his condescending, know-it-all brother, Dennis, who held the family together all this time. But how can this be? After all, Gordon is the bad guy, Dennis the good.

Our discomfort persists as we struggle to come to terms with the kind soul Gordon seems to be, and the enormity of which he's been convicted. Morris allows the full story of Gordon's crime to come out in dribs and drabs, a story that, though not what it appears at first, still does not completely exonerate him. This is not a book of easy answers and loose ends tied up neatly.

The characters are a patchwork of class, race and sex, thrown together in a world as confusing and pitiless to them as it is to Gordon. Their names are a tip-off to their personalities: Gordon Loomis, 6-foot-6 and 350 pounds, looming, implacable; Delores Dufault, self-abnegating and generous to a fault; Jada Fossum, of questionable parentage, born on the wrong side of the tracks; Albert Smick, a cross between slick and smarmy. The world they inhabit is in flux -- once-lush lawns are now strewn with the detritus of the drug trade; old Mrs. Jukas is not safe in her own house; Marvella Fossum is a junkie unable to care for 13-year-old Jada, who steals and runs drugs to eat.

Seeking balance and stability, Gordon feels only disorder and dislocation. At least in jail he had predictability; here, in a life of supposed freedom, the ground keeps shifting -- his brother, the golden boy, is having an affair; Delores, who visited him faithfully every month while he was in jail, is involved with her married boss; he finds solace in menial jobs, yet keeps being told he's too intelligent for such work and is wasting his life.

"His expectations had been foolish," Morris writes. "It was far too complex here. And insidious. Nothing was the way it was supposed to be." The only way Gordon can cope is by keeping his head down, avoiding involvement.

But the world, of course, always intrudes. And it will never trust the good intentions of an ex-con. It takes months for Gordon to work up the courage for the simplest act -- ordering a pizza delivery -- yet only hours for his new life to unravel in a series of coincidences. This is perhaps satisfying to the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crowd: Because the odds are obviously stacked against men like Gordon, why not just keep them in jail, so not only we but they are more comfortable? That sentiment will not be changed, even by a book as probing and humane as this.

It is impossible not to be reminded of Richard Wright's Native Son and compare Gordon Loomis to Bigger Thomas (though Gordon is white and Bigger black). The questions of accountability raised in Wright's book 60 years ago have not changed; and our answers, if anything, have only gotten worse: The U.S. prison population has ballooned to 2 million people, many of them Gordon Loomises, who will, like it or not, one day get out.

Lisa Simeone is the host of NPR World of Opera and the weekly foreign affairs TV show Superpower. Her career includes reporting for cultural, news and public-affairs programs, and hosting NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. She lives in Baltimore.

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