When I was in college I spent some time working in an unusual youth counseling program. Each week a friend of mine drove a van full of 12- and 13-year-old black kids, many with juvenile records, to Walpole state prison, onetime home of the Boston Strangler. The inmates would advise the kids about how to straighten out their lives and avoid the “Big House.” I was never sure if these visits actually helped our young charges or simply made them able to brag to their friends about knowing big-time crooks. But my own intense conversations with the attentionstarved inmates often left me brooding on the ride home.

It wasn’t considered polite to ask what they were in for, but the details eventually emerged. Leon, an amiable black inmate with a silver earring who was popular with the kids, told me his life story one day, then began insisting he was not a pimp. Who said you were a pimp, I asked. The prosecutor, he answered, assuming I knew his case. Then, by way of explanation, he said, simply, “I killed Andy Puopolo.” Puopolo had been a classmate of mine, a Harvard football player stabbed to death during a scuffle in Boston’s notorious Combat Zone. I had trouble talking to Leon after that.

Then there was Jim, a portly white inmate who was very smart and talked about everything in the world except himself. He ran several programs inside the prison and served as a jailhouse lawyer. Like me, Jim loved politics. How could someone who knew that Tom Dewey was called “the man on the wedding cake” have done something that would land him in a maximum security jail for life? As we grew friendlier and his warm, unthreatening personality took hold, the question grew more puzzling.

I mentioned Jim in an article I wrote for my college newspaper about the program, and when the editor saw it he said I must not have been in Massachusetts long enough to recognize the name. A few years earlier Jim had been well known—former treasurer of McGovern’s 1972 campaign in Massachusetts, vice president of a local business. One day his boss was found dead, a suicide note on his desk. It turns out Jim poisoned him and faked the note. Then the body of Jim’s mother was discovered buried in his basement.

1 returned to Walpole, where Jim and I talked some more, but I still couldn’t fathom it. Another few visits, no hints. Finally one day I was so determined to get a little closer to his case that I casually dropped the name of the Boston Globe reporter who covered his trial. For about a second and a half Jim’s eyes narrowed and his voice turned arctic: “I’d like to get that guy out here alone some day.” That’s all he said before breaking into a grin and cracking a joke, his same old likable self. But that’s all it took.

Jim’s case may seem like an easy one, but that is only a measure of how far even liberal attitudes have traveled in the last couple of years. As recently as 1981, it hadn’t been so easy for Norman Mailer and Jack Henry Abbott’s parole board to discern the truth. In retrospect, with Abbott’s over-praised writing in hand, it should have been simple. On page five of his book, for instance, he writes of a fellow inmate who bugged him for a cigarette: “And I just looked into his sleazy eyes and wanted to kill his ass there in front of God and everyone.” Not long after Abbott was freed from jail, when he was bugged by a young waiter at a Greenwich Village restaurant who wouldn’t let him use the bathroom, he did what he said he would do on page five.

It is against the tide of Leon and Jim and Jack Henry Abbott that John Edgar Wideman is swimming in Brothers and Keepers, a book full of ambiguous emotions on a subject that seems to have lost its ambiguity. Somewhere along the way people stopped caring very much that Leon was good with kids or that Jim could be a friend or that Jack Abbott knew how to write. The crime rate may be down a bit, but the bitterness of the victims has reached a critical mass, even among liberals.

Imagine the liberal outrage that would have occurred ten years ago had a grand jury acquitted a Bernhard Goetz for murder after he shot three black teenagers on the subway, two of them in the back. Now it’s William Kunstler against the world. Even black community leaders, while decrying the racist overtones to the Goetz case, have been conspicuously restrained in their defense of the teenagers. After all, it’s their own constituents who suffer the most from crime and from an unworkable criminal justice system. Even the old radical chic crowd can’t be accused of coddling criminals anymore.

However out of synch with the times, Wideman’s musings about his brother are an effort to scramble the new certitude on this issue, not through liberal bromides, but by simply throwing the old-fashioned notion of brotherhood into the mix, tossing all of those dimly recalled ambiguities back into the resisting mind of the reader. He does this by taking the figurative notion of brotherhood—the kind that people used to feel for men in jail—and making it literal brotherhood. This was, of course, a familiar narrative device in those gritty movie melodramas back in the 1930s. Two brothers grow up in the city streets: the older becomes the family’s pride and joy, the younger a source of heartbreak and shame. This time the ethnic group struggling to join the middle class isn’t the Irish—Pat O’Brien as the priest and Jimmy Cagney as the gangster—but blacks. John is straight A’s, basketball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, Rhodes Scholar, novelist, and English professor. Robby is class clown, black revolutionary, dopehead, accomplice in an armed robbery attempt on some other petty thieves that results in a murder and puts him in prison for life. Ten years apart in age and living in different cities, “it had taken guards, locks and bars to bring us together.”

This is a book about the black male experience at a time when people aren’t writing about that, or at least not writing books that are being widely published and read. Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Claude Brown, and Ralph Ellison have largely given way to the Toni Morrisons and Alice Walkers in the task of chronicling black life for the masses. Morrison and Walker are onto a gripping and relevant but entirely different black experience. For reasons that are more taken for granted than explained, violent street crime is an exclusively male activity. If it is not exclusively black, it is enough so that the culture of the ghetto might turn out to be as important to understand as it seemed 15 or 20 years ago, before the bitterness took over. In other words, “Lock ’em up” may be right, but it also may not be enough.

What is required of us? Maybe nothing more than just taking the time to get to know an inmate or two. They are people whose acquaintance self-assured research associates at, say, the Heritage Foundation are not eager to make, even through books. If the Heritage types did take the time, they might in fact find many of their stereotypes confirmed. By most accounts, today’s thugs are meaner and more casual about taking a life than ever before. A thousand psychiatrists working overtime could not rationalize their natures or change their behavior. The best we can do is isolate them from the rest of the population, and reconcile ourselves to the fact that they are irredeemable.

But there are others Wideman would say his brother is among them—who are not the same. There is, after all, a difference between a trigger man and an accomplice; between a first-time car thief and a repeat offender who sticks a knife in your ribs; between the cold-blooded murder of an innocent stranger and the hot-blooded murder of a wife or a friend. The law respects some of those differences. It’s the hardliners who sometimes have more trouble making the distinctions. Blinded by their rage, they see all criminals as the same, and the prison as a place to let them rot. Were you crowded three to a cell and homosexually assaulted? You asked for it.

The accomplishment of Brothers and Keepers is that it helps us take a second look at these people we’ve recently come to hate so much. It does so by taking readers into a world that they may have strong opinions about, but don’t really know very well. Robby’s past is no doubt typical of thousands of other inmates: the difference is that he is insightful enough to explain it, and lucky enough to have a brother who wants to put it between covers.

The outlines of the story are familiar enough. First Robby grows withdrawn and alienated, in this case by the death of a friend whose illness is ignored by white doctors until it’s too late. His family moves to a tougher neighborhood and he falls in with a tougher crowd. His mother finds money missing from her purse and later discovers a syringe under his bed. His position as the family’s youngest child is a factor; teachers expect him to live up to the performance of his older brothers and sister. The larger problem is, simply, an unquenchable need to be cool. (This last point is so uncool to make that it tends to be underestimated as an explanation of youthful lawbreaking, not to mention many of the rest of the ills of Western civilization.) Here’s Robby on that subject, as filtered through his brother’s typewriter: “Had this superfly thing. Nobody could tell me nothin’. . . .You out there to show your ass. To let people know you’re somebody. Yeah. You out there to shine. To be a star. . . hear the bar go quiet when you walk through the door. See, it’s a rep. It’s a glamour. . . .The things we liked, we called tad . Man, that was a ‘bad’ girl. The thing was to make up your own rules, do your own thing, but make sure it’s contrary to what society says or is . . .”

The next part of the story is also depressingly familiar. Robby and a couple of friends buy dope in Detroit with the hope of making a killing selling it in Pittsburgh, but the deal goes bad and they need money fast. They take to offering to sell hot TVs to a fence, then robbing the crooked buyers. One such robbery goes awry, and in the confusion Robby’s friend shoots and kills a Greek. They flee to the West, visiting John Wideman briefly in Wyoming while on the lam, then are caught and sentenced to life imprisonment. Inside, where recidivism is so high, the saying goes, that the authorities reserve a place for you in the chow line once you get out, Robby becomes a Muslim.

Here the story changes in ways that are confusing for the people with pat answers. Robby, remarkably articulate about where he has gone wrong, buckles down and receives an associate college degree in engineering. Valedictorian of the last prison class before budget cuts eliminate the program, he gives a graduation speech eloquently extolling the virtues of hard work over trying to be hip.

The main reason all of this works is that it is done through John Wideman, who is determined to figure out why he and his brother took different paths. He recounts the stages of his adjustment to leading the double life of an assimilated black. The first reaction, in college, is like that of anyone moving from one class to another: “Coming home was kind of bragging, like the suntans people bring from Hawaii in the middle of the winter.”

But the book is not really about those contrasts. There are no quick cuts between sherry at Oxford and paper bag wine in Pittsburgh or extended meditations on marrying a white woman. He relies instead on a pastiche of confused impressions of his brother that somehow make sense. “Some of these guys are bad, very bad. They must be. That’s why prisons exist. That’s why you shouldn’t be here. You’re not like these others. You’re my brother, you’re like me. Different .” The point is, you don’t have to agree with Wideman that Robby should not be in jail in order to agree that this particular inmate is wasting in jail. One can believe that criminals have done harm to us (and should be imprisoned for it), without believing that we should do harm to them (and revel in their misery). Liberals no longer have much trouble facing the first idea, but millions of conservatives will not give the second idea even a thought.

Maybe Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien had it right in those old movies after all. Just before the credits rolled, Cagney or some other scarface would shuffle down the long hallway toward the prison door, head bowed. O’Brien, or whoever happened to be playing the golden-hearted priest, would be weeping softly, but he’d be certain justice could permit no other outcome. That’s about where John Edgar Wideman leaves off, though with the hope that the metal door will swing open again before too long. As for me, I can’t cry for Leon and Jim any more than the families of their dead victims can. But I do know that the kids we drove out to the prison that year are not the only ones who could learn from them.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.