While it’s not in the same excremental league as Giminez’ The Color of Law, or Elwood’s similarly appalling Angelwalk, Sleepers is definitely in the same category: ‘Books that foolishly invite comparison to vastly superior ones’. In Carcaterra’s case, he labours reference to the The Count of Monte Cristo, and the contrast is pretty brutal to him.
The basic idea is essentially the same: revenge. But while Dumas’ vengeance is shockingly apposite, coolly calculated, and taken over decades, Carcaterra’s is sudden, random and at times non-sensical. Moreover Dumas’ Count’s journey is epic, and what it turns him into has profound philosophical dimensions; John and ‘Butter’s transformation from innocents into stone cold killers is cursory at best – they get a few paragraphs after their prison ordeal, with Carcaterra basically going to the reader, ‘Well, you know, they just turned into those stereotypes of killers you read about in books like this,’ stripping them of any individuality or personality.
I’m not trying to be blasé about sexual abuse, or even to necessarily cast doubt on the authenticity of basic events (well, not in this paragraph anyway), but some biographies have less truth than some fictions. If a writer describes (or even sees) real people in shallow, imperceptive or even inaccurate ways, how ‘authentic’ are these characters? Whereas I’ve read fictional stories where imaginary characters overwhelm me with their authenticity – they take me powerfully into a situation I’ve lived. Now this is not so much trying to endorse Derrida’s ‘There’s nothing outside the text’ deal: I still emphatically believe in a vital distinction between historical and literary documents (hence, for example, it really matters that Primo Levi was actually in Auschwitz). But I do hesitate to swallow much of Carcaterra’s version of places he may have been and people he may have known. His version of ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, for example, feels idealised and nostalgic, imposing a cultural order and unity that I suspect many individuals in that historical context simply wouldn’t have fit (moreover Levi dispassionately says what happened; Carcaterra constantly tells us what to think, how we should feel, how we should interpret events).
But to put aside the contentious claims of veracity (although would I have even heard of this book if Carcaterra had not made them?), even treating this book as fiction I found the climax significantly unsatisfying. Just too many holes. I don’t see how events could have played out this way given the characters we’re presented. A sample of the stuff that made me shake my head:
- John and Butter are, ten years on from prison, sold to us as stone cold, calculating, experienced, unemotional killers. This is their business. Why, then, do they act like the most inexperienced, emotionally driven amateurs when they, of all people, meet someone they want to kill? What, they can’t even wait ten minutes and follow him into an alley? This guy is their biggest enemy – have they no desire to make his death less humane? (Moreover this goes back to the Monte Cristo thing: Dumas’ would see this idiotic, knee-jerk form of revenge being the total opposite of that of his masterpiece).
- Rizzo has connections with dangerous, career criminals. Again, experienced, able killers. This is partly why he has some protection in prison. The guards have to go back home every night, they don’t have 24/7 protection. Ten years on all his family needs is the name of his killer, and they take instant revenge. Why would no-one pass on his name at the time? It was no secret in the prison. They broke Rizzo’s hand completely in public. Why would Rizzo’s friends protect the killer’s identity? If they feared him, giving his name to Rizzo’s family would only make them safer. Carcaterra wants his cake and to eat it too: he wants to present the inmates both as utterly powerless victims, and as powerful, well connected badasses.
- What’s the deal with Michael – super-leader/planner – making his threat to Noakes, “You’d better kill us,” but then, huh, he just seems to forget that he has any motive at all to plot revenge until a decade later when his hand is forced. What the? Some of these scenes just seem so tailor made for film (the football match, for goodness sake), but don’t make much sense with the characters. Indeed, the whole book felt so by the numbers, so much more Hollywood than reality.
- The priest’s perjury. What, he’s lived in Hell’s Kitchen, done time and had the same experience of abuse as the boys, and never yet faced a dilemma of perjuring himself to protect a victim or to condemn a perpetrator? Or if his word is so powerful, why not speak up honestly against the perpetrators he’s completely aware of? (He and King Benny both couldn’t bring themselves to warn the boys about what they knew would happen: and neither used any of their resources (reputation and criminal violence respectively) to even attempt to protect the boys). It’s like Shakes pulls his trump card, “but they were sexually abused,” – and Father Bobby is shocked as if he never suspected such a thing could happen (yet he knew it would happen beforehand). As if he wouldn’t be aware of sexual abuse happening in Hell’s Kitchen (but in Carcaterra’s version this only happened in prison, not in ‘tough but fair’ Hell’s Kitchen). The prison abuse may be shocking to middle class readers, but it makes no sense that it would surprise a character of Father Bobby’s purported life experience, and be some new moral issue he has to confront.
- The trial confession. Ferguson, the evil monster, is given no motive for suddenly pouring out his heart, confessing to all the rape and torture that he’s kept quiet about. He is the only one who mentions it, just breaks the moment the accusation comes out. Ludicrous. For all that he’s done, why he would baulk at lying on the stand to protect himself makes no sense. It’s a daydream. If this is based on fact, let’s see the courtroom transcript. Stranger things have happened, but I strongly doubt its existence.
- The token groupie dream girl, Carol. Oh puh-lease. Sold to us as independent and smart, but she for no apparent reason is utterly devoted to the four guys, apparently happy to sleep with any one of them (which, by the way, causes no hint of jealousy or tension within the group), not fazed that they may have become addicts or killers. And then this line: “She too has never married, but is a single mother supporting a growing twelve-year-old son. The boy, John Thomas Michael Martinez, loves to read and is called Shakes by his mother.” Twee? Implausible? Do you think? If she really did this, the girl needs help!
- What is it with these particularly American books that have this idea that all you really need to do to fix up issues with socially disadvantaged kids from deeply trouble homes characterised by alcoholism, neglect and domestic violence … is to leave a few Penguin classics around. Not only will the kids devour this great literature, it will enrich and change their lives! Having taught English to a lot of kids from this sort of environment, this surprisingly popular trope (let's just start with the fact that most of these sorts of kids have understandably poor literacy and struggle with contemporary texts with relatively simple language – as if they’ll stick with tome like ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ with difficult and at times archaic language) is ridiculous. Yet again and again there’s this idea that if you just throw some underprivileged kids some Shakespeare the whole civilised world will just poor open to them. Hey, Shakespeare’s great. Dumas likewise. But they’re not the magic bullet. More often they’re just an author’s stab at gaining respectability: “Don’t call me stupid – check out the names I’m dropping.”
OK, enough venting. And like I said at the start, it’s not the worst book I’ve read. But it’s sure as hell got some serious problems.