When Julian first laid eyes on his new cellmate, Gordon, it was love at first sight. Little did he expect Gordon to eventually return his attraction; indeed, the two were soon in the throes of a passionate love affair. When some vengeful powers moved Gordon to a separate cell block dedicated to rougher inmates, their feelings were tested. Words written on clandestinely passed notes pale in comparison to the fiery months of passion they’d shared as cellmates. Yet the pair of them suffer together, sharing memories of past encounters and sketching ideas of a shared future.
Passing notes, however, is both dangerous and slow. Their communication suffers a lengthy hiccup at a pivotal moment…one that leaves Julian feeling at loose ends. When Gordon finally manages to reconnect with Julian, they both realize that even the forces apparently conspiring to keep them apart cannot keep them from their own feelings. Secure in the knowledge they will be true to one another, Gordon and Julian embark on separate paths leading toward the same goal: being able to make it on the outside, and doing so together.
The god’s honest truth here: I wasn’t wholly and utterly transported by the story, but I was pretty impressed with the structure of the book. The book starts with an introduction stating that the following is a collection of letters written between two men who became and stayed lovers while serving time in a prison (in Australia…which I didn’t realize out until practically the very end of the whole shebang). That introduction is written by one Wayne Mansfield, which happens to be the author’s name. I did a double take, wondering if perhaps I was going to be enjoying some nonfiction. To confirm, I checked out the copyright page and it, at least, stated that the work was one of fiction. I really enjoyed having that element of doubt seeded as I read this book; it was even more effective at the end when the Wayne Mansfield narrator comes back to wrap up the story after the letters have stopped.
All the action is related to the reader through a series of letters written from Julian (“J”) to Gordon (“G”). These were found in the attic of “Wayne Mansfield’s” parents’ house, “Mansfield” feeling the letters ought to be shared. The prose in the letters themselves lacks polish, which the narrator admits during the introductory set up. The actual content of the letters seems to devolve into erotic notes between lovers half the time. The other half is taken up with their mutual musings about the “screws” that work in the jail and other inmates before finally focusing on their plans for the future—especially as Gordon’s chance at parole comes closer and closer.
On the one hand, I feel like I have to give the writing in these letters a pass. Who writes letters to someone describing what they both already know? In the case of Julian and Gordon, they are already familiar with everything in prison life and have no need to waste time and space on exposition (even though it would help the reader). It seems realistic enough that two men, in such a situation, would spend their efforts reinforcing their intense physical connection even if they can only do so by writing down in vivid detail what those past physical encounters felt like. And who doesn’t love to read a good racy yarn? So in that regard, I suppose I can’t complain…yet it did mean it took me a while to warm up to the characters.
Part of me was also disappointed about the portrayal of prison life. To be sure, where prison life intersects directly on the actions and reactions in Julian’s and Gordon’s lives it appears on-page. Like the attractive new cellmate Julian gets and the strife it causes all around or when Julian gets into the bad graces of a new prison guard. Nevertheless, the limited descriptions committed to paper keeps a lot of this action at arms length for me. Just like the two separated lovers, the reader gets a sense of frustration at the limited communication and sometimes unrelenting isolation that comes from radio-silence. Still, there is no small amount of action in the book, whether directly described in the letters or simply alluded to that comes off as sounding wildly convenient for the characters.
Even so, the book’s premise and the method of presentation made this story a worthwhile read for me. Owning again to the niggling possibility that some (or all?!) of the book was seeded with truth, the resolution provided by “Wayne Mansfield” captured my attention at least as much as the rest of the book, largely because it provided a bare-bones skeleton of what happened to Julian and Gordon after they left prison—one that made he desperate to know the details, but resigned to that being an unknowable mystery.
On the whole, I really enjoyed how the author was nontraditional on just about every aspect of this story, from the epistolary style to the fact that both MCs are inmates in prison to the inclusion of “himself” to set the scene and wrap up the letters.