Teach the Free Man is a book of stories by someone who knows prison. Red Room author Peter Nathaniel Malae doesn't advertise time he has or hasn't done, but his intimate and intricate knowledge of California prisons, and what it is to be locked up in them, speaks for itself. Most of the stories show us men in cells, visiting rooms, on the tier, on the yard at Avenal, Quentin, and CMC. A couple stories are of parolees; one is in the voice of a guard whose own son has been charged with murder.
Malae can write. He was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University this past year, he won the prestigious Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award for his first novel, and he was a finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lion Award in fiction this year. You can hear "Turning Point," the book's opening story, on KQED's Writers' Block.
Here are a few of the lines I noted:
"Prison is many things, after all, but mostly it is the gross simplification of life's complexities."
"No visits, no riots, no incidents. Only the clicks of the popping cell in trochaic monometer. Clink. Clank. Clink. Clank. Clink. Clank. Only unquestioned directives over the PA in the same. 'Lockdown!' 'Med call!'"
"I rolled into the Unit Monday morning, absorbing the whole setup without even consciously trying, that's what institutionalization does to you: You've always got your radars going, like an insect. There were little framed signs up, the kind you find in convalescent homes: 'Footsteps in the Sand' and 'Chicken Soup (for Convicts).' Bullshit to keep you from thinking about the loaded deck of the system."
The book's title is from Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats." Here's the stanza the words live in:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start.
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.