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Kafka for cons 

Rookie writer waxes indulgent about teaching lit in the pokey

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In the abyss between viability and respectability, the lit business is paved with questionable successes, unsung heroes (Charles Portis anyone?) and disillusioned aspirants. The writers who will feel most thwarted this winter, however, are those who've preached the gospel of the written word in prison education programs. Certainly, many could have produced an insightful account of what it's like bringing Kafka and company to the big house. Unfortunately, Theo Padnos got there first.

In the late1990s, Padnos was a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts. During a seminar on the symbolism of Gustave Flaubert's bird droppings, he falls down on the floor in a fit of mocking laughter. His professor is not amused.

Rather than take the breakdown as a cue to pursue another career, he lingers until his financial aid runs dry and then moves to his mom's home in Vermont. Through want of work and a fascination with the violent crimes plaguing the countryside, he soon finds his way inside the Woodstock County Correctional Facility to teach a class in American literature.

My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun is built on a solid foundation. It is a relevant, if overly ponderous, attempt to explore questions that once ranked among the nation's foremost quandaries: Why are so many young people committing seemingly inexplicable violent crimes?

Padnos is less interested in the phenomenon in the aggregate than in how it plays out on his students. With a religious devotion to the power of words, he raises other worthwhile questions. Can literature further their understanding of what led them to pull the trigger or the knife, or to commit the rape? Can it offer solace or a glimpse of redemption?

The answer Padnos finds, though he's reluctant to admit it, is no. But with zeal known only to true believers (and supporters of Dennis Kucinich), he pushes novels onto an audience far more interested in placing pencils in their noses and bemoaning their oppression by the Vermont DOC.

That such fervor is met with such indifference provides an avenue for humor, but it's hard to tell how much the author is in on the joke. He seems too busy fluctuating between being a missionary teacher and a sycophant obsessed with the hardened masculinity of his students.

As he writes of a type of "intensely physical Vermont dude":

"I've always thought that if somehow he could be stilled, if I could hang out with the guy in quiet conversation, he and I would get along well. Some of his toughness might rub off on me ... And maybe I could do him some good as well -- an Allen Ginsberg poem here, a Theodore Roethke poem there."

A poetry-for-virility swap meet -- this would be hilarious if only he were kidding. Sadly, such self-indulgent inanity is par for the course.

Commandeering the respect of people who lack experience with sophisticated books is not an enviable task. That Padnos keeps at it is admirable, particularly given his street cred insolvency. Sadly, many of the classroom scenes are like witnessing a milquetoast substitute teacher getting downed by a rowdy class. That is to say, they're both uncomfortable and embarrassing. There's also too much space devoted to his exegesis on the books he's trying to teach. Failing to reach his students, perhaps Padnos couldn't bear to see a good lesson plan go to waste?

The chapters where he's reporting about his students' lives, as opposed to his obsessions with them, outshine everything else. But for a project like My Life to be viable, one needs to evidence some connection to, or understanding of, the prison system and its inhabitants (for such an example see Ted Conover's Newjack). Padnos merely furthers the understanding of his own obsession.

-- John Dicker

capsule

My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun by Theo Padnos (Miramax: New York) $23.95/hardcover

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