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God of the Rodeo: The Search for Hope, Faith, and a Six-Second Ride in Louisiana's Angola Prison Hardcover – September 22, 1998
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Not since Truman Capote's In Cold Blood has a writer so humanely evoked the complicated, harrowing lives of violent convicts. At turns haunting and inspiring, God of the Rodeo is novelist-journalist Daniel Bergner's riveting account of a year spent visiting the maximum-security prison at Angola, Louisiana, also known as "the last slave plantation." Initially there to report on the prison's annual four-weekend rodeo in October 1996 for Harper's, he was able to extend his stay for a full year when he was granted complete, unsupervised access to the seven prisoners with whom he became most closely acquainted.
In God of the Rodeo, he introduces readers to rodeo champion Johnny Brooks, a 41-year-old "lifer" incarcerated for a murder he committed at the age of 18, who is engaged to marry a civilian woman he met at the rodeo. He's also the most promising candidate for parole. There's Terry Hawkins, a man who tries to seek salvation for the violent murder of his boss, the grotesque details of which haunt him, and Danny Fabre, plagued with comically large ears he desperately wants corrected by plastic surgery almost as much as he wishes to learn to read past the 6th-grade level. Perhaps the most striking figure is the stern, spiritual warden, Burl Cain, a self-proclaimed prophet who genuinely believes in redemption for even the most violent offenders.
Written with the eloquence of a poet and the perceptive eyes of a painter, Bergner's extremely well wrought, unforgettable book offers a rare glimpse into the hearts and souls of men who commit violence, finding hope and courage where few dare to look, without ever losing sight of the horrific crimes that landed them in America's most isolated prison. --Kera Bolonik
From Publishers Weekly
Bergner (Moments of Favor) offers a fascinating portrait of the inmates of a maximum security penitentiary (Angola) in a state (Louisiana) where a life sentence means 'til you die. Providing the frame and the protagonists is Angola's annual fall rodeo, where inmates compete in such events as "Guts & Glory," trying to grab a $100 chip from between the horns of an angry bull. Wondering why these men would submit themselves to such harm for little glory and less money, Bergner decided to follow six of them from one year's rodeo to the next. With a comfortable sympathy for warden Burt Cain and his program of faith and rehabilitation, Bergner spent his first five months freely interviewing guards and inmates. But in January, Cain suddenly demanded first editorial veto, then a cut of the royalties. Refusing both, Bergner lost entrance to the prison and while a lawsuit reinstated his access, the interruption (of interviews and narrative) opened Bergner's eyes to the warden's despotic paternalism (his new programs included shoe-shine detail and car-wash detail) and inspired greater confidence from inmates. Whether by dumb luck or design, Bergner's half-dozen subjects turned out to be inspired ones. A couple of them seemed simply criminals doing time; the others were looking for something transcendent, whether through God, family or rodeo. Bergner brilliantly balances the pathos of this life (e.g., the fear of being buried in a flimsy state-issued coffin) with the violent facts of the crimes. Had Bergner been a less scrupulous journalist and glossed over the rupture in the center of his account, it might have made a better narrative. But it would not have been so honest.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
(1)"There are countries in which public establishments are considered by the government as its own personal affair, so that it admits persons to them only according to its pleasure, just as a proprietor refuses at his pleasure admission into his house; they are a sort of administrative sanctuaries, into which no profane person can penetrate. These establishments, on the contrary, in the United States, are considered as belonging to all. The prisons are open to everyone who chooses to inspect them ad every visiter may inform himself of the order which regulates the interior." - Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, 1833
(2)"The United States Supreme Court, in a series of decisions going back to the 1970s, had helped to ensure that the nation's prisons stayed isolated and unknown, that criminals, once sent away, could be forgotten. . . .
" . . . A recent federal law, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, driven through Congress to ensure that incarceration not be too costly to the taxpayers or too joyful for the convicts, will likely free Angola from federal oversight within the coming months." - Daniel Bergner, 1998
Bergner handles, by his own account, many difficult situations with wisdom and grace. He proves his points and labels his speculations as such. He is neither cynical nor gullible. My one complaint is that he includes a passage toward the end (Chapter 15) in which he simultaneously preaches vengeance and quotes Jesus, apparently oblivious to the irony. Proclaiming any moral feat (in this case love of an enemy) impossible is always a moral disgrace. However great the majority of Americans who are unable to overcome the thirst for vengeance that Bergner attributes to all people, there is a minority being ignored, erased from the "natural" and "normal." This attitude is to blame for much of the horror depicted in Bergner's book.