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From Barnes & NobleCrime and Punishment
Imagine William Faulkner rewriting Crime and Punishment and setting the novel in East Texas instead of Yoknapatawpha County. The result would be as simultaneously tough and lush as Robert Draper's first novel, Hadrian's Walls, an examination of the issues of friendship and betrayal between the convict protagonist, Hadrian Coleman, and his boyhood friend Sonny Hope, now the warden of the prison where Hadrian is doing time. Before the book even begins, a novel's worth of explosive events have already taken place. When Hadrian and Sonny were 15, they were menaced by Judge Castlebury, an old pervert with a shotgun. Hadrian killed the judge; he was arrested, then sent up the river to Hope Farm State Penitentiary in Shepherdsville. A decade and some spare change later, Sonny became the warden of Hope Farm. After Hadrian apparently killed a fellow prisoner named Wexler and then escaped from the pen, Sonny indirectly helped his old friend avoid capture. Eight years later, a prisoner named Digby made a deathbed confession admitting that he was Wexler's killer. The novel now begins with Sonny securing a pardon for Hadrian.
But just as nothing ever goes simply in Faulkner and Dostoevsky, Robert Draper's world is equally complex. It soon becomes clear that Hadrian really did kill Wexler -- Digby was just a generous liar. Furthermore, Sonny knows Digby is lying but says nothing so that Hadrian will be beholden to him. Then an ex-con turned religious charlatan named Ricky Tempesta discovers the truth and begins blackmailing Sonny. Though now a free man with a pardon, Hadrian now finds himself planning to murder Tempesta to pay his debt to Sonny.
Woven into this intricate drama are flashbacks about the long-ago killing of Judge Castlebury as well as Hadrian's breathtaking escape from prison:
I ran a third and final mile along the tracks before pulling the work gloves out of the back pockets of my jumpsuit, and...I shinnied up a telephone pole; how, with far less effort than it might have taken for a far less desperate man, I advanced hand over hand along the telephone wires, dangling thirty feet about the jagged flint as I propelled myself, taking my mind off of the searing pain in my shoulder and fingers by estimating the distance between each telephone pole at twenty-five yards and thereafter resting at every tenth pole, but never for long because I could still hear Buckaloo's canines [the dogs chasing him] though faintly.... And then, while clinging to the one hundredth pole, I heard an altogether different noise. I waited, plastering myself against the pole as the train whistle came louder...."
You read a passage like this and think that this Texas-born resident of Austin, Robert Draper, must be one tough sumbitch. I myself figured him for an ex-con who read Dostoevsky and Faulkner in the clink. After I phone the 41-year-old novelist, I discover that I'm both right and wrong. Well, mostly wrong. Although Draper admits that a few years back he did reread 13 Faulkner novels in a row for inspiration, he has never done time in prison -- save for a night spent in jail back in high school when he was arrested while trying to steal a rival school's mascot.
So what drove him to write about a Texas prison? "I used to be a staff writer for Texas Monthly and did many stories on crime and punishment," he tells me (he now writes for GQ). "And those stories often took me to Huntsville, which is the real prison town in Texas. I was always fascinated about the precarious ethics of how crime pays in that town. It's a prosperous town because it was built off the backs of felons. Everyone owes their nice lifestyle to the presence of the felon population. I thought that was an area fraught with irony and ethical queasiness. And that set the stage for me writing the book that I wrote."
Then I wonder if Draper has many male friends -- the relationship between Hadrian and Sonny is as complicated as anything in Freud and Shakespeare. But Draper assures me that both characters are completely fictional. I guess I believe him, although I'm still not convinced Draper hasn't spent a season or two in the slammer. The writer manages to surprise me once more before we hang up by revealing that he wrote his ultra-Texan novel in Venice, of all places (the one in Italy, not California), where he was on sabbatical from Texas Monthly.
"Having that distance made Texas more real on the page," Draper says.
And he's right. I found myself talking in a Texas accent while reading Hadrian's Walls -- a novel as cold and satisfying as a six-pack of Lone Star.