Hadrian's Walls

Overview

This debut novel is an intensely powerful story of imprisonment, both behind walls and within the personal confines of human relationships. Shepherdsville, East Texas, is a town defined - architecturally, financially, and socially - by its state penitentiaries, among them the bleak Hope Prison Farm. It's a town where virtually every inhabitant is either an inmate or a prison employee, a town where crime literally pays. Shepherdsville's two most famous citizens are Sonny Hope, its larger-than-life prison director,...
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Overview

This debut novel is an intensely powerful story of imprisonment, both behind walls and within the personal confines of human relationships. Shepherdsville, East Texas, is a town defined - architecturally, financially, and socially - by its state penitentiaries, among them the bleak Hope Prison Farm. It's a town where virtually every inhabitant is either an inmate or a prison employee, a town where crime literally pays. Shepherdsville's two most famous citizens are Sonny Hope, its larger-than-life prison director, and Hadrian Coleman, its most notorious convict. Their friendship since boyhood has followed a pattern of mutual dependence, keeping them at once in collusion and on opposite sides of the law. At age fifteen, introspective and emotionally vulnerable, Hadrian killed a man and was sentenced to fifty years at Hope Farm. However, twenty years later, he achieves the unthinkable and escapes from the prison. After years of life on the run, he's summoned back to Shepherdsville to receive a full governor's pardon secured by Sonny, who now runs the prison, and, by extension, the town. Hadrian knows that Sonny's motives are not entirely clean, that this is a favor that will require something in return. When the nature of that payment is finally made clear, he must determine who really owes what to whom and whether carrying out Sonny's demand will result in a lifetime spent in his power.
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Editorial Reviews

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Crime 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.

—David Bowman

Drew Jubera
A story of bare-knuckle politics and rock-bottom soul-searching. —Atlanta Journal
Brad Hooper
A strong vein of humor runs through it. —Booklist
New York Post
The motivations and desires of Draper's characters are in sharp enough conflict to create the right amount of melodrama. Distinguished by passages of remarkably fluid writing, Hadrian's Walls introduces Robert Draper as a new novelist to watch for.
Texas Monthly
The suspense is sharp as a razor wire, and Draper has nailed the natives' conversational cadence. As for atmosphere—well, if you've never visited East Texas, after reading this book you won't need to go.
Boston Globe
[An] engrossing first novel by Robert Draper, a journalist who's a full-blooded Texan with a full-bodied gift for storytelling ...The author draws the East Texas backdrop convincingly, and provides a rich cast whose actions ring true without approaching cliche ...a pleasure to read.
Mark Luce
Although the pacing, plot, and prose are all commendable, it's Draper's eye for dialogue, which crackles and drawls with mean-spirited slang and home-spun wisdom, that give the novel it's life ...The faint of heart reader may do well to stay away, but if you can handle this tough world, Draper's powerful examination of friendship, obligation, and freedom will not disappoint.
Bookpage
Washington Post
A gutsy first novel ...The author, a former Texas Monthly reporter, seems favored with a native's eye for native failings, a folklorist's ear for speech and a journalist's nose for secrets.
New York Times Book Review
A deft, occasionally ingenious novel. doing for sadistic prison directors what Donna Tartt's "Secret History" did for muderous college cliques: making them seem, if only momentarily, far more appealing than you ever thought they could be.
Entertainment Weekly
...[V]iolent redneck milieu...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
No amount of East Texas drawling, hard backslapping or red clay dust can hide the corruption lurking in the heart of Draper's scorching, Faustian first novel. A prison town that feels more like an ante-bellum plantation--inmates serve as everything from houseboys to field hands--Shepherdsville thrives because the Texas Department of Criminal Retribution absolutely dominates the community's political, economic and social landscape. The story begins with the return to town of native son and convicted double murderer Hadrian Coleman, the prison's only successful escapee, after eight years on the lam. He is free because Sonny Hope, his boyhood friend and now the prison director, secured a governor's pardon on his behalf. Hadrian is less certain of his own innocence, and he continues to wrestle with personal demons that howl louder when he discovers his pardon comes with strings attached. Sonny is a charismatic opportunist who once testified against his own father, former prison director Thunderball Hope, during a corruption investigation. He also followed in his father's footsteps, liberally employing graft and bully tactics to grease the sticky bureaucratic wheels of the criminal system. Now he faces a major scandal and believes he can get out of it only with Hadrian's collusion in a desperate strategy. The two men plunge into an emotional vortex complicated further by the love each feels for Sonny's wife, Jill. Draper skillfully balances his stark portrayal of Shepherdsville's environs and feckless inhabitants with the affecting drama that unfolds among the central characters. His ambitious novel explores the irony, pathos and contradictions inherent in our conceptions both of freedom vs. captivity and of good vs. evil. 60,000 first printing; author tour. (May)
Library Journal
Shepherdsville, TX, is a prison town, dominated by the Hope Farm State Penitentiary and Sonny Hope--politician, con man, and director of the Texas Department of Criminal Retribution. Since childhood, Sonny has relied on others to do his dirty work for him and bail him out when things go wrong. His best friend, Hadrian Coleman, finds himself at age 15 serving a prison sentence for murder to protect Sonny. At 39, he is a long-term fugitive returned to Shepherdsville to receive a pardon arranged by Sonny. This is Hadrian's story--the murder, the escape, the pardon, the deal that follows--orchestrated by Sonny. In this debut novel, Draper takes a long look at the dark underbelly of the Texas prison system, exposing the violence, graft, and corruption, and the officials who thrive there. It's a big topic, but Draper does it justice. Recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/99.]--Thomas L. Kilpatrick, Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Sara Mosle
...[A] deft, occasionally ingenious novel, doing for sadistic prison officials what Donna Tartt's Secret History did for murderous college cliques: making them seem, if only momentarily, far more appealing than you ever thought they could be.
The New York Times Book Review
Drew Jubera
A story of bare-knuckle politics and rock-bottom soul-searching.
Atlanta Journal
Brad Hooper
A strong vein of humor runs through it.
Booklist
Kirkus Reviews
In his cool, prosaically loping fiction debut, Texas journalist Draper easily entraps the reader in a Lone Star State prison town rancid with lies, corruptions, and cover-ups. Draper's most vivid creation is Shepherdsville itself, with its economy, employment rolls, social life, and gossip all based on the business of punishment as conducted in a variety of institutions strung around the town like a golden yoke. Within these institutions, laws are routinely warped to satisfy prison director Sonny Hope, who as the story opens has pardoned Hadrian Coleman eight years after his escape from jail. While on the run, Hadrian has been cleared of the murder of a fellow inmate, but Sonny hasn't pardoned his boyhood friend out of charity: he needs Hadrian to eliminate Ricky Tempesta, another former inmate, whose business ventures are squeezing Sonny's turf. Some shady deals have gone down between Sonny and Ricky, Hadrian discovers, that threaten to end Sonny's career, perhaps his life. The prison director has always trusted Hadrian, who killed a judge to save Sonny's life and then took the fall without mentioning his friend's involvement. Hadrian remains loyal; if he completes this last, dirty job for Sonny, he thinks, maybe he can finally be free to shape his own destiny. Of course, the complicities between Sonny and Tempesta run deeper and spring from motives more obscure than Hadrian knows. The author masterfully shows Shepherdsville's strange logic of power and fear as it encompasses each new, slowly revealed fact and the people who come to know it. In the end, Hadrian's soul is cleansed, his name is cleared, and he gets a good woman—a conclusion that seems jarringly sunny after thedelicious varieties of malice we've seen festering. Still, getting there provides sooty, ragged, fearsome reading pleasure. A breezy encounter with human darkness, carried on by the lilt of Draper's choice prose. (First printing of 60,000) .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375403699
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/20/1999
  • Pages: 321
  • Product dimensions: 6.54 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Draper spent years as an editor and writer at Texas Monthly before moving to his current position as staff writer for GQ magazine. A lifelong Texan, he lives in Austin with his wife, Meg Littleton.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One

As I drove into Shepherdsville, I did all I could to retrieve the memory that is surely stowed away somewhere--that of the country boy I was who, on his first-ever Saturday ride into town, saw for the very first time the legions and legions of men in white, stooped along highways and in cotton fields and in the courthouse garden. That moment, when I first laid eyes on justice's whipping boys, should have formed a powerful impression. Today, I could tell you everything about the first and last deer I ever shot, at the age of five. I could tell you about Mawmaw's fatal heart attack during a supper prayer, and how I ran away from home when my sister Mimi was born, and about the catfish that jerked the cane pole out of my hand and dragged it down the Minerva, and about driving in Pawpaw's pickup to the big city of Houston to see the Colt . 45's play Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers. And of course I could read you chapter and verse about my first kiss, with Flo Wattleston the prison chaplain's daughter, at the age of thirteen, and the taste of her mouth and the sweat of her palms against my back and the sweet desperation clawing inside of me.

But then I thought of Pawpaw's big hardwood trees. If they could be dragged to the ground, what made a memory of mine so almighty that it couldn't buckle to its intended destroyer? Prison was that destroyer. It not only took from me what might have been; it took from me what actually had been. And so as I drove, I could only imagine the virgin shock that comes with observing the hoe squads and the cotton-pickers and the rosebush-trimmers and all the other forlorn, sullen losers in their ghost outfits, spreadacross the Shepherdsville terrain like dirty white fertilizer. I was long accustomed to the spectacle. To my eyes, the cons were nothing more than semi-animated infrastructure, kindred to the town's fire hydrants and dumpsters.

Their awful homes came into view, one after the next: the Purvis J. Hope Prison Farm, six miles from town; the Carter Unit, for incorrigibles and death row cases, three miles further in; the Farenthold Women's Unit, just off the interstate at the city limits; the Diagnostic Unit, wedged between First Presbyterian, First City and the Wal-Mart; and the historic Shepherdsville Unit, also known as Big Red, which sat two blocks east of the courthouse in the heart of downtown. Even spread apart from each other as they were, you would be inclined to see the prisons in tandem, like bones strung along a pagan tribal necklace, or as some cancerous continuum blighting the town. What you would really be looking at was Shepherdsville's artery. Prisons fed money to the core, money to the outskirts, money everywhere. They were the common bond. They employed people, paid people, gave people something to talk about--gave them a whole new language, so that perfectly ordinary grey-haired matrons could be heard clucking at the D.A.R. luncheon, "They tell me the Winston boy's been in ad-seg ever since the lockdown," or, "Buddy says he wishes he could put an end to that turf battle over at the Carter Unit between the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mandingo Warriors, but after the last excessive-use-of-force citation he says he'd better leave it up to the CO-1s."

Unlike the typical small town, there's always something to see in Shepherdsville by looking up--namely, the prison lights, the picket towers, the curls of razor wire, and if you're lucky, the sight of a helicopter tracking some poor bastard who'd scampered off of trusty duty. It had never occurred to me that this dismal skyline might change. But it had. To my surprise, I found myself driving past several gaudy new buildings, tall and prominent as they poked out of Shepherdsville like great gleaming spires awaiting a congregation of giants. They were state offices for prison bureaucrats, properly bland, but their presence was so alarming that I couldn't for the life of me remember what had been there beforehand. Texas Department of Criminal Retribution--Prison Industry Division. Texas Department of Criminal Retribution--Managed Health Care Division. Texas Department of Criminal Retribution--Legal Affairs Division. Texas Department of Criminal Retribution--Victim Support Division. Texas Department of Criminal Retribution--Inmate Education Division. And no doubt there would be more.

A final building presented itself from the far east side of town: less boxy, composed of craggy limestone likely quarried from the hill country of central Texas and plunked down at the western edge of the Pine Curtain. I knew that had to be the Administrative Division. Sonny never was much for wandering in the forest. But up there, behind his one-way glass, he could be one with nature. Fond amusement welled up in me--replaced, then, by something else, and I shivered.

At the light I turned left onto Walls Boulevard. A few blocks up ahead, the clock crowning the olive Italianate courthouse gonged six times. A sensation overtook me--one, I thought at first, of confinement. But this was different. It was the feeling of being trapped. I thought about the liver-spotted old cracker back at the icehouse by Bernadette Creek. What were the words of wisdom he'd stumbled upon: Not old Sonny Hope. He don't do squat for free.

A honk of a horn slapped me awake. Here I was, in the belly of Shepherdsville. The familiarity of my surroundings brought a surge of joy, followed by a cascade of aching. The day-shift guards and deputies filing into the courthouse square café. The college students huddled in broad-shouldered, fancy-haired packs outside the Grizzly Bar & Grille. The fuzzy-eared coots feeling their way with their canes down those familiar well-ordered walkways bordered by shocks of azaleas and petunias . . . And extending out of the right hip of the square stretched the avenues, with their once-impressive procession of antebellum estates now hideously tricked up by the wives of Sonny's entrenched lieutenants.
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