Review of Prison Noir, Short Story Collection, Edited by: Joyce Carol Oates

Amazon/Barnes& Nobles/ Books-A-Million/Goodreads/

Review by: Kristie Hendricks

Prison Noir
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

Contributors: Christopher M. Stephen, Sin Soracco, Scott Gutches, Eric Boyd, Ali F. Sareini, Stephen Geez, B.M. Dolarman, Zeke Caligiuri, Marco Verdoni, Kenneth R. Brydon, Linda Michelle Marquardt, Andre White, Timothy Pauley, Bryan K. Palmer, William Van Poyck

Akashic Books

Release Date: September 2, 2014


This raw, realistic anthology flows effortlessly; each tale of horror adding credibility to the last. By the final page we understand how suicide can be a viable option for the characters. Faced with no possibility of freedom, death is desired. Justice is a flimsy word in the collection, especially when crimes are committed within the closed system of a prison. Relationships between inmates in Prison Noir are complex; regardless of alliances formed, no one is selfless. Selfishness is crucial to survival. There is a sense that the characters open up slightly more to the reader than they would to a cellmate. Any companionship is for gain unless it is carefully masked (like the connection between the musicians in “Tune-up” by Stephen Geez). Accepting a favor is an act which often becomes a diabolical debt repaid in blood or dignity. Trust is often misplaced and loneliness plagues the whole population.

Of course we cannot call the writing true, but as the editor, Joyce Carol Oates, points out, “virtually all of the stories in this volume have the disconcerting ring of authenticity, and not invention”. This is a must read for anyone interested in looking behind the scenes of our prison network and for readers who can stomach reading about the deprivation of human beings. If you enjoy the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” this may be a book you would enjoy, although there are only three pieces by women. The collection does not call for prison reform, but could be a case for one. The writers of these stories are part of a huge, often forgotten population who suffer more than they ever should.

Many of the stories address the passage of time, both the dragging of the clock by day and the swift passing of life or large sections of life, which can never be replaced. Time somehow feels both excruciatingly slow and incredibly fast. The day you are living drags on, the days you’ve lived inside are structured yet meaninglessness and are a blur of memories amounting to nothing much. Drug use is as prevalent as cold grits on the morning breakfast tray. Reputation and strength are of high importance in most of the stories. Many of the characters wish for death, lose hope, and struggle to cope with knowing themselves. Without the noises and distractions of life as a free person, the characters have sufficient time to discover the darkest pits of their own minds and once found, struggle to not dwell upon them. Innocence may come in through processing, but never gets released.

The short stories are littered with prison staff ignoring mental illness, refusing proper medical attention, and serving the cheapest food possible. All of this adds to the degradation of the incarcerated person. The collection does not place blame anywhere, likely because in real life it is diluted with so many hands involved. The institution of a prison is squalid.

Prison Noir shows the American prison experience is not one that can be overcome, but is an encumbrance even if one is lucky enough to leave. The actual writing is not profound, but the experiences endured which undoubtedly influenced the prose make Prison Noir an assemblage of pleas. The long lasting result of the prison experience should be important to all of us: the US imprisons more people than any other country on earth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s