Zack Caligiuri’s This Is Where I Am (University of Minnesota Press, $17.95) comes from a gifted author and would’ve worked with competent editing and a publishing house acting with integrity.
Regrettably, this valuable volume suffers a disjointed rendering and worse, sensationalized publicity peddling a bill of goods: hawking the book as a prison memoir — cashing in on the public’s longstanding voyeuristic fascination with men and women locked up for living on the wrong side of the law.
Caligiuri owns a deft prose style, delivering a matter-of-fact voice that, while sometimes bordering on the coyly self-impressed, by and large resonates a sure-handed, unassailable authority.
Undermined by herky-jerky jumping around from past to present, landing in-between to awkwardly approximate stream of consciousness, each time jarring just as the eye settles to rest on a flow of rhythmic, fluid prose. After a while, despite the author’s innate, engaging appeal, it becomes tedious, tiresome and just not worth it to keep track of where he is with the story.
Where he lived in South Minneapolis, how he grew up, went awry and so forth, served in linear style, adhering to some sense of continuity would be fine, even as a long preface. Instead of constantly trying one’s patience, not to mention attention span.
About some 200 pages in, once you see through the hook and the publisher’s selling point to push this as a prison memoir and understand you’ve been had, the only real reason to finish reading the book is that you’ve come two-thirds of the way, some 200 pages, and may as well not have the experience be a total loss.
Bottom line, this is a misfire. Realistically, the best that can be said for it is that a talented, powerfully introspective pen marks a noted debut, portending, once he gets and stays out of prison, a truly viable line of work. After all, as Richard Pryor sagely commented in a riff inspired by his days inside, “Where I’mma get a job pressing license plates?” Caligiuri, on release, will have no reason to lack for work — rewarding at that. Bagging an agent worth his or her salt, he’ll be set with speaker fees and make the talk-show circuit.
Thankfully, for the last few chapters, the narrative quits hopscotching and settles into sustained continuity. Which is almost worth the wait, because Caligiuri puts us practically in his skin and stays there, recreating the torture in which he languishes, conveying his mental condition and emotional state of coping with a life that is bleak in even its brightest moments.
At its darkest, consider:
“Segregation was the back half of one of the cells, partitioned by a wall and an electric sliding door that opened and closed all day and night…black caging that dressed the tiers all the way to the ceiling to keep them separate with bodies bouncing around in their boxes like the zoo with nothing to do but yell or screech at anything moving or at any of the other noises that responded back.
“It wasn’t a zoo and these weren’t animals; it seemed like the cages confused that distinction, though. And it was so much darker there. Even at 3:00, the afternoon sun blazing in, the cages made everything seem dark.”
It goes on to render a demoralizing immediacy that accords compassion for this criminal and makes you damned glad you didn’t make the same sort of choices in life. His stay in solitary confinement was for smoking weed in his cell — Caliguiri never does say how the heck he got hold of marijuana behind bars, but suffice to say the ingenuity of inmates is not to be underestimated.
He describes circumstances in which things, relatively speaking, are bearable. “Eventually, my world became a never-ending succession of sleeping and walking, going up and down the same hallway every single day… There was a feeling that this was my future, getting used to something that was alien to me. The daily meditation I had that doors would open and the nightmare would end was fading. There were years in the way, now — a sense of permanence in that empty cell.”
Ultimately, This Is Where I Am promises a writer with something significant to offer. Hopefully, a second, capably edited book, longer on publisher’s integrity, shorter on hype, will deliver on that promise.
For more book information, go here.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403