The Name of the Publishing Game? Killing for Fame
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because judging books by their covers has never been a winning strategy.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Jack Henry Abbott had been incarcerated for a fair bit. That “bit” was all but 10 months from right after he turned 12 until the age of 37.
Which is to say, do the math. The Michigan native hadn’t been anyone’s definition of an easy time. But for this son of a Chinese prostitute and an American GI — in and out of foster care since he was born in 1944 — maybe little else should have been expected. “Prison is dehumanizing,” says ex-con Sam McBride. “But it’s designed to be just that.”
Disciplinary infractions in Abbott’s teens and petty crime during his brief 10-month tenure as a free man landed the slight Abbott right back in the stony lonesome of a Utah prison where, according to him, after someone had reportedly tried to rape him, he graduated to murder. It was 1965, and he was 21. His sentence? Three to 20 years for manslaughter; 19 more years were later tacked on when, during a brief escape, he robbed a bank.
The part of me which wanders through my mind and never sees or feels actual objects … experiences this world as a horrible nightmare.
Nine times out of 10 the story ends right about there, but with lots of time and axes to grind, Abbott discovered that he could write. Well. Or well enough that as a result of all he read, he had started to write to those he liked to read — Polish great Jerzy Kosinski and Norman Mailer being the first and foremost among them.
“The part of me which wanders through my mind and never sees or feels actual objects, but which lives in and moves through my passions and my emotions,” said Abbott in one of his missives, “experiences this world as a horrible nightmare.” Letters like this — all coruscant genius, angry and condemning — were noteworthy enough that the addressees wrote back, convinced of Abbott’s talents. Indeed, Mailer was convinced enough to get Abbott a book deal for a book he’d call In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison. Not just a major book deal, either, but a major advance, an offer for him to work as Mailer’s research assistant and a willingness to tell the parole board so.
It was apparently enough to get them to buy what Mailer was selling, and in one of those reinventions that seem to be part and parcel of the American landscape, Abbott was released. He became the toast of a town whose last significant flirtation with a bad guy had ended up with Joey Gallo dropping in the streets of Little Italy, shot dead by rival gangsters. So it was on a nice day in June 1981 that Abbott, having been released, pulled into a halfway house on New York’s Bowery.
Then came appearances on Good Morning America, interviews with Rolling Stone magazine, dinners with the editors at the New York Review of Books, Mailer and Kosinski. Full-blown toast-of-the-town style that ultimately culminated with Abbott, a woman on each arm, pulling into a Lower East Side after-hours eatery. He needed to piss. The waiter told him the bathroom was only for staff; an argument ensued; and, so as not to disturb other diners, they both stepped outside. Minutes later, Abbott returned and advised the women to flee.
The waiter? Stabbed dead on the pavement. It was July 18, 1981, and the 37-year-old Abbott had been out of prison just six weeks.
In total shit-hitting-the-fan mode everyone — Mailer, Kosinski and the parole board — scrambled to cover their asses while the media doubled down, made mock of it and lambasted Mailer. Abbott hit the road and managed to stay on that road until September 23, 1981, when he was finally caught in Louisiana. Mailer and Kosinski were apologetic, Mailer later going on to say that it was “another event in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about.”
And Abbott? He defended himself at trial, with predictable results: 15 years to life. His response to the sentence, after having written one more book to very little public interest, was to hang himself in his cell in 2002, at age 58. His final literary effort, a suicide note that prison authorities refused to release, remains unpublished.