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Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Scribner, 352 pages, $27

Eventually Romy Leslie Hall occupies the “lower bunk in room fourteen of unit 510 of C yard.” Her life is circumscribed by the prison’s boundaries in Stanville, California. She is in prison for murder, with a lifetime to repent and no hope for redemption. Author Rachel Kushner describes the small lives of Hall and her fellow prisoners and their desire to make it somehow more meaningful or joyful. (Although revenge sustains some of them just fine.)

Rachel Kushner takes almost 357 pages before she tells you about the murder that got Hall put away. Because the thought isn’t about the murder; it is about Hall’s existence on her bunk, in her cell, in the prison yard, in the G.E.D. classroom.

Kushner has you think about the crummy lives people live, sometimes by choice but often just because that’s all there is. Alcohol, drugs, sex, violence. Sometimes people just have to deal with it, with no bubble to shield them, no money to help them escape, maybe not even family or friends. And sometimes it’s because people and friends have been pushed away. It’s about choices you make and some that are made for you. Once you are in prison, all the choices are made for you.

Hall meets Sammy, Conan, Teardrop, Candy, Betty, and Serenity. Kushner deals their stories out to compare and contrast with Hall’s. They are harsh stories with streaks of poignancy and sometimes humor. They are all told with Kushner’s incredible ability to describe her characters with compassion, even if they are clobbering a fellow inmate with the flat side of a garden shovel.

Throughout Hall wonders what has happened to her son. He was five when she was incarcerated. She lost touch with him when he was seven. She tries through legal channels at first, but the law is not her friend. So she will be manipulative if it will get her answers. She will use her street smarts and her stripper-sharpened wiles to help her.

Kushner doesn’t make the whole story about Hall, but she certainly has the largest role, a first-person narrative that travels until the end. But we also see the world through the eyes of an unambitious teacher who can score nothing better than teaching the difficult women of the prison. We listen to another first-person narrator who lives in the woods and sometimes rages and vents about neighbors and sometimes rhapsodizes about nature. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that those sections turn out to be excerpts from the dairy of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.)There’s an ex-cop who is crooked and amoral. We hear his story because his lover is in the same prison as Hall. We follow the path of a transgender prisoner. 

Kushner is the real deal.

MBTB star.

P.S. If you haven’t already cottoned to it: Although it is called “The Mars Room,” this is not a sci-fi book. The Mars Room is the strip club where Hall works.

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