Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

I apologize for being a negligent 50 booker. Apparently, applying for graduate school and being neurotic about it consumed my entire life from January until April 15th. Now that I have a plan, I am going to read entirely too much to make up for being booked for the next two years solid. No pun intended.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts took me four months to read. See above. This might also have something to do with the book being non-fiction, which isn’t exactly my genre of choice. The main character, being the man behind the memoir, was not a man I found to be very relatable: affluent magazine owner that screwed his investors over by kiting himself checks to stay in business. One thing follows another and after a string of good luck runs out, he winds up getting caught and being sent to prison. Not a bad guy, by any means, just a tad greedy and ego driven. He shows remorse, he makes positive attitude and life changes in prison, contemplates how to be there for his family from afar, etc. Essentially, he did the things you do while you’re in the can. Not very interesting.

While he isn’t riveting, the book itself still is. Neil White did his time in Carville, which was also home to the last group of people in the U.S. with leprosy, now termed Hansens disease. What this means is that you’re reading a novel about 130+ patients living with Hansens, the Catholic nuns that live with them, workers from the Bureau of Prisons that are itching to take the entire place over despite the ability to properly secure it, and a group of inmates that ranged from your typical tough guy to your white collar criminal. In other words, not your typical cast of characters. The two people that made the book for me were both inmates. “Link” was a former carjacker that liked to sit outside of the Popeye’s drive-thru so that he could steal a car AND fresh chicken. He injected plenty of comic relief into the middle of long over-sentimentalized passages about White wanting to reform and be a better man. The other was Doc, White’s Russian roommate that was serving time for charges related to a heat pill he’d created to aid in weight loss. While he served his time, he kept himself busy by reading free medical magazines that he subscribed to by duping the publishers into believing that he was a worker in the medical federal facility instead of an inmate put there for health related reasons. In their first exchange, Doc explains that he has recently come up with a cure for erectile dysfunction but laments that he’s having a hard time marketing it from inside the facility. Good stuff.

While the patients and inmates weren’t suppose to fraternize, White still managed to get in plenty of conversation with them when he could. In order to make his time “productive” he decided to take it upon himself to return to his roots in journalism and begin an investigation into the lives of the patients—into their lives both before and after being sent to Carville. (Most of the patients had originally been brought to Carville against their will, though they were still there at the time of the novel voluntarily.) In the process of doing so, he struck up a friendship with a woman named Ella that peppered his time there with valuable life lessons and motherly wisdom that I felt like a jerk for not being able to appreciate more.

I feel pretty guilty about this review. I wanted to like Neil White. I want to want to recommend his book to you, but not enough to actually do it. I think you should just read about Carville, instead, and get the history without the fluff that White brought with it.