Shino AriharaOver the course of four Sundays every October, in a packed arena surrounded by razor-wire fences and, in the distance, guard towers, the inmates of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison put on a rodeo unlike any other. The events, which bear such names as “Guts & Glory,” “Bust-Out” and “Buddy Pick-Up,” are exceedingly perverse and dangerous. During “Convict Poker,” for instance, the prisoner participants sit as if playing cards at a red table in the middle of the ring. “Brrrrring on the dealer!” booms the MC, whereupon a 2,000-pound bull, prodded by an electric shock, charges from a chute. The last man sitting wins $100.
For the thousands who attend the Angola Rodeo each year, the sickening spectacle of an event such as “Convict Poker” is rendered acceptable by the fact that the individuals running for their lives are murderers and rapists. Yet as Daniel Bergner elucidates in his largely successful God of the Rodeo, neither the spectators nor the prison-stripe-clad cowboys are as dehumanized by all of this as civil libertarians might at first think. “The occasion was, in a sense, sacramental,” Bergner observes. “The men offered up their bodies, and in return the public came to see them, acknowledged their existence. For the rest of the year Angola was nowhere, isolated in its own corner of the state, the nearest tiny town 30 miles away. The rodeo was a rite of grace, of barely perceptible reconciliation between the inmates and society.”
Angola Prison is an immense and elemental place, encircled on three sides by the meandering Mississippi River and on the fourth by swamp. Its master is Warden Burl Cain, a paunchy, white-haired paradox who takes equal inspiration from the New Testament and a work entitled Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. His management philosophy is simple: “I’ll be as nice as you let me and as mean as you make me.” (As proof of the former, Cain institutes reading lessons for inmates on death row and holds one condemned convict’s hand during the seconds prior to execution.) Among the warden’s 5,000 charges — 85 percent of them violent criminals and 80 percent lifers — are Johnny Brooks, Terry Hawkins, Danny Fabre and Carey “Buckkey” Lasseigne. Each man is a killer. Each aspires to be a champion cowboy. And along with convicted thief Littell Harris, all are made available to Bergner for a year of unlimited and unsupervised interviewing and observation as they prepare for the annual rodeo.
The granting of such reportorial access behind prison walls is unheard of, and Bergner regards it as a godsend, for in Angola’s “barbaric rodeo,” he hopes to discover the triumph of spirit over flesh, an “affirmation for my own tenuous faith.” The bull’s horns might pierce the cowboy’s side, its hooves might break his ribs, but should he manage to stay in the ring or, during the riding events, the saddle, he has the chance to rise above the depravity of his present circumstances, to experience, however fleetingly, redemption.
Considering Bergner’s lofty ambitions, he entertains few illusions about his convict subjects’ characters. Getting to know one of them, he writes, “I couldn’t bear to find myself standing with a murderer who was also a defenseless child.” The author, in short, refuses to be conned, and, as a consequence, he portrays Angola’s would-be bronco busters with harsh honesty. Brooks bludgeoned a convenience-store owner’s wife to death during a robbery. Hawkins plunged an ax into his boss’ skull. Fabre strangled a woman, then set her corpse afire. Lasseigne shot a service-station attendant in the back of the head.
Yet despite the heinous nature of the crimes committed by the protagonists of God of the Rodeo, Hawkins, Fabre and the others retain a spark of humanity. By the mere fact that they open their eyes each morning, they confront the choice of sinking further into the morass or asserting their individual nobility. Inside Angola, life is as stratified as it is on the outside, and Berg ner expertly limns the lower depths, wherein homosexual rape and drug dealing predominate. As for the high ground, it begins with organizations such as Forgotten Voices, the prison toastmasters club, and the Angolite, its award-winning magazine, and culminates with the rodeo. The pinnacle is symbolized by a silver-plated belt buckle awarded every fall to the “All-Around Cowboy.” Brooks hopes to impress his fiancée by winning the buckle. Lasseigne wants to regain the respect of his son by sending it home to him.
Bergner is so splendid on every aspect of existence at Angola that it comes as a shock when, halfway through the book, he reveals himself to be in a fundamental sense the worst sort of reportorial naif, one whose solemn musings blind him to the agenda of the flesh-and-blood deity who lords over the prison — Warden Burl Cain. In his desire to believe in Cain’s version of tough love, Bergner ignores newspaper reports that the warden, an appointee of oft-indicted Governor Edwin Edwards, has in the past attempted to enrich himself by taking a piece of various convict-labor contracts. But the truth will out, and it does so in a dramatic incident. The setting is far from Angola, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where Cain, thanks to his progressive ideas about prisoner rehabilitation, has been invited to lecture. Yet when he is not mesmerizing adoring students and faculty, the warden is in his hotel room trying to shake Bergner down for both editorial control of God of the Rodeo and some vigorish from its publisher. Bergner refuses, and Cain informs him that he is not welcome back at the prison.
Considering the head-in-the-clouds stance that led him to forgo posing the hard questions at the start, Bergner hardly seems the sort to fight Cain’s edict. Yet he refuses to be thrown, winning an audience with a federal judge who finds in his favor. When the author returns to Angola, the warden has no choice but to back off, declaring, “Tell it all, tell it like it is, ’cause I bless this book.”
God of the Rodeo’s jarring midcourse about-face casts doubts on Bergner’s journalistic judgment. But the author does such a good job of righting himself that he can be forgiven his illusions, for he has written an acutely observed account of prison life. Moreover, he leaves Angola more of a realist (“We live for whatever it is possible to live for — and that was the only sure lesson I ever drew from my year,” he eventually admits), even repudiating the rodeo. Though Johnny Brooks wins the “All Around Cowboy” buckle and marries his fiancée, Bergner concludes his story with a paean to Littell Harris, who ultimately refused to play cowboy and, upon being paroled, seems to have taken control of his life, finding a good job. Predictably, Burl Cain — following publication in Harper’s earlier this year of an excerpt detailing what happened in Amherst — chastises Bergner, informing the state Senate: “The devil’s going to get him.” The threat, however, doesn’t pack much of a punch, for while Cain may still be the warden, to the author he is no longer a god.