Luther Martin Stone and Tommy “Red” Johnson have been sentenced to 25 years in the federal penitentiary for armed bank robbery – to run concurrently with the fifty year State of Texas sentence they already have. I didn’t know when I began reading it that this was a “true” story: biography and autobiography clad in a “fiction” coat.
The focus of the book is not on the crime itself – we’re given no details in the opening chapters, other than his assertion that he didn’t do what he’d been convicted of, or on the terrors of prison life, though those are alluded to. The writer is far more interested in the character of Luke himself – a man who cares about the love of his life - Darlina Flowers - his four kids and a music career on the outside, who protects his friend Red and won’t stand for the bullying of any other vulnerable prisoners – but who nevertheless has a character flaw that has (a) got him into the mess he’s in and (b) goes on making things worse for him.
He learns his lessons the hard way, but is intelligent enough to know that the very thing that protects him – his dislike of authority, and his unwillingness to take any crap from anybody – is also what’s destroying him: “He didn’t have any control over much of anything right now other than his own mind.” And he really needs his freedom.
THAT’s what makes the book interesting…
Jan Sikes writes well – simply, but with apposite turns of phrase - as does her main character. While recovering from his operation for perforated stomach ulcers the words flow from Luke’s stubby yellow pencil: “…all the sad songs I’ve ever sung gather around to see me cry…” She also is the mistress of arresting simile: “…my left leg is throbbin’ like a robin’s ass.” Sheer poetry!
The lack of characterisation in the usual sense, or the more normal layering of descriptive and explanatory detail gives the narrative a curiously allegorical feel. We’re told what the character does or says or thinks and the moral message gathers steam. A month can go by between paragraphs. It’s an unusual narrative technique, and I found myself reading on as much to discover how the writer went on handling it as to find out what actually happened.
It was quite a jolt when almost as an aside towards the end of Chapter 10 Darlina tells us that Luke is still married to Joyce. Joyce?! We found out the names of his four kids early on, and we know that Luke’s parents have been helping to look after them, and we sure as hell knew about sweet Darlina, but this was the first we’d heard of a wife named Joyce (I don’t think I missed it…).
This is a pilgrim’s progress: a flawed man who has had to be taken to the depths of despair and hopelessness to discover his inner talents, which he can then develop using the power of his indomitable spirit. It almost doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in the man as he is painted: it’s the message you’re grappling with.
It’s a long, episodic story but stick with it. A key event in chapter 13 highlights for Luke the key fact that though his body is captured his mind and soul are not. “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage…” From then on he strives to be “positive in a negative place”.
Gradually the irony emerges: that Luke had to be imprisoned to find his freedom, whereas Darlina IS free, only to find that she is imprisoned “behind invisible bars of loss and loneliness”. They both learn that there is more than one way to be strong.
Great literature it ain’t, and doesn’t claim to be. Great and painfully honest – and in the end deeply moving - story it most certainly is.