Tim Willocks prefaces his novel with a quotation from William Shakespeare’s Richard II (c. 1595-1596): “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world.” His fictitious Green River State Penitentiary in East Texas—overcrowded, seething with racial hatred, ready to explode—is intended as a microcosm of the United States, if not the entire shrinking, overpopulated globe.
The reader does not have to turn many pages to realize that Willocks is an exceptionally intelligent, well-educated, and talented author. His descriptions and psychological insights are frequently impressive. He has an unusual background for a thriller writer. He was born in England, studied to become a physician and surgeon, and finally decided to specialize in psychiatry, focusing on the treatment of addiction. He lives and works in London.
It would appear that Willocks’ knowledge of Americans is largely based on a fondness for popular American films and hard-boiled American novels. The cadences of his prose are definitely American, reflecting the powerful influence that American literature has had on British writers in recent decades. There is, however, still something very British about the fine quality—the “high gloss,” as Henry James might put it—of Willocks’ prose. He is such a good writer that the reader may wonder what this British psychiatrist is doing tossing together such a premeditatedly commercial product. The doctor-author seems quite capable of writing high-quality mainstream fiction and may go on to more ambitious projects after getting this fantasy out of his subconscious.
The writer Willocks most closely resembles is Stephen King. The Briton and the American share the same apocalyptic vision and enjoy adding conflict after conflict to a smoldering concoction until it must inevitably explode. Green River Rising will remind the reader of King’s Needful Things(1991) in the way it builds and builds to catastrophe and of King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” published in Different Seasons (1982) in the way it pits an idealistic white middle-class intellectual convict against an unscrupulous warden.
Warden John Campbell Hobbes has become psychotic under the strain of trying to run a modern American penitentiary on principles suggested by Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher and theoretical jurist who recommended that in a model prison the inmates should be made to sense that they are under around-the-clock surveillance. Hobbes, a white racist, attributes most of his administrative problems to the animalistic nature of his African American and Latino prisoners. In his madness, Hobbes has decided that the only solution is a race riot to release the tensions that have been building up in this overcrowded, superannuated institution since the advent of the soaring crime rate in the 1970’s. Hobbes resembles the infamous Charles Manson, still incarcerated in a maximum-security California prison for masterminding the murders that he hoped would trigger a massive race riot he called “Helter-Skelter.” Hobbes hates African Americans and lets them know it in no uncertain terms before “locking down” their section of the prison and turning off the air-conditioning to increase their rage.
Ray Klein, a doctor who lost his license when jailed on a bogus rape charge, is well aware that the warden has stopped taking the medication prescribed to keep his psychosis under control. Klein is the only person among the twenty-eight hundred prisoners who is accepted by all three racial factions: whites, blacks, and Latinos. His status is based on the fact that he provides medical treatment impartially and has the skill to provide better care than the visiting prison doctor, whose feelings about the prisoners are not much different from those of Warden Hobbes. Klein knows that an explosion is coming but intends to go on being a model prisoner and minding his own business until the parole board decides to let him go.
Klein is falling in love with Juliette Devlin, an idealistic visiting psychiatrist who tries to provide counseling and...
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