Jerome Gold’s novel “In the Spider’s Web” is a stark look at life inside a state facility for teenagers convicted of murder, rape and other crimes. Gold appears Friday, May 29, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
There is a quiet anger that grinds through prison writing. A compulsion to tell the world what goes on inside locked wards, accompanied by the equally powerful sense that anyone willing to look may be suspect.
Jerome Gold, who writes of the years he spent working in a Washington state juvenile lockup, describes these feelings with sharp economy in his spare, sometimes devastating new book, “In the Spider’s Web” (Black Heron Press, 215 pp., $14.95).
“There was nobody on the outside I could talk to, nobody willing to listen to something like this,” he says after learning that the newest resident in his cottage is a boy convicted of killing his younger brother. The depravity stuns even this veteran of the system. Yet almost instantly, comes the punishing afterthought: “The story had struck so deep that I would not want to talk about it, that I would be angry with anyone who would listen, that I would regard him or her as a voyeur.”
The author of “In the Spider’s Web” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, May 29, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
The setting is Ash Meadow, a pseudonym for the state facility where Gold spent 15 years counseling teenagers convicted of murder, rape and other crimes. The kids in Spider’s Web are all first-name pseudonyms, too, though the author’s note says that everything in what Gold calls a “nonfiction novel” happened in real life.
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Stark realism is the book’s greatest strength. “In the Spider’s Web” reads like a diary, rat-ta-ta-tat facts interspersed with passages of sudden eloquence. As in a diary, there is little character development or scene setting. What plot does exist centers on staff intrigue — who’s incompetent, who’s abusive — and the relationship that develops between our narrator, Jerry, and a girl named Caitlin, convicted at 13 of helping her mother murder an employer.
Their friendship becomes pivotal for Jerry, but we learn this through an economy of personal detail that will leave some readers wanting more. In fewer than 35 words, Gold mentions that his narrator is divorced, estranged from a grown daughter and prone to getting over-invested in the kids on his caseload.
Gold, who also wrote “Paranoia & Heartbreak: Fifteen Years in a Juvenile Facility,” is clearly committed to the material and wants readers to see these young felons as human beings. His terse description tends to undercut that effort. But sometimes style and substance come together with stark power, as in this passage about a 14-year-old boy’s confusion at receiving a birthday card from his grandmother:
“He couldn’t believe he was only fourteen; he had even forgotten it was his birthday. He felt so old.”
In interviews, Gold has said that he ultimately left the job out of anger at a system built for orienting kids to prison, not a life outside. Honesty like that is the most valuable aspect of his work, and Gold is at his best when he lets it rip.
“During my time at Ash Meadow, I had come to despise such expressions as ‘healing process’ and ‘reconciliation’ and ‘forgiveness.’ In my experience, people did not heal; rather, scar tissue built up over the surface of the wound so that air could not get to it, but the injury was always there,” he writes.
“And if the cause of conflict or pain was too great to think about, they compressed it until they could hide it in a part of themselves that they did not visit, and this was called ‘forgiveness.’ ”