“Tense and evocative . . . . Despite its powerful social critique, Vengeance is cautious and prismatic, openly troubled by its own claims to authority.” Katy Waldman, The New Yorker
As the narrator attempts to sort out what happened in King’s lifepaying visits to his devoted mother, his estranged young daughter and her mother, his girlfriend, his brother, and his cousinthe writer’s own sense of identity begins to feel more and more like a fiction. He is one of the “free people” while Kendrick, who studies theology and philosophy, will never get his only wish, expressed plainly as “I just need to get out of here.” The dichotomy between their lives forces the narrator to confront the violence in his own past, and also to reexamine American notions of guilt and penance, racial bias, and the inherent perversity of punitive justice.
It is common knowledge that we have an incarceration crisis in our country. Vengeance , by way of vivid storytelling, helps us to understand the failure of empathy and imagination that causes it.
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About the Author
Zachary Lazar is the author of four previous books, including the novel Sway , the memoir Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder , and the novel I Pity the Poor Immigrant , a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, and the 2015 John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for “a writer in mid-career whose work has demonstrated consistent excellence.” Lazar’s journalism has appeared in The New York Times , NPR’s All Things Considered , the Los Angeles Times , and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans, where he is on the creative writing faculty at Tulane University.
Read an Excerpt
My friend Deborah, the photographer, once told me that she distrusts color, because it’s too seductiveit prevents us from seeing what’s really there. She wasn’t speaking metaphorically, she was just explaining why she prefers to shoot in black-and-white, but in a larger sense she was talking about the rigor of looking, not glancing, not turning away. That first night we spent at Angola, we went outside to view the main prison under lights, the rectilinear massiveness of it, the fences and razor wire. I wanted to walk toward it across the vast lawn but Deborah said no, she’d heard there were snakes, so instead we walked down the road and made out two other camps in the distance across empty fields under the moonlight. I knew Angola was huge, but this was the first real sense I’d had of it. It was its own planet. That night, from the empty space around the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters where we were to sleep, it was like when you’re on an airplane coming into a foreign city in the dark and you see the different grid patterns of lights and gradually make out the vast shape of what’s below. It was as if all the importance in the world had coalesced in those fieldsviolence, punishment, collision, consequenceall that significance beyond the limits of my small understanding.
We got into Deborah’s truck the next morning and followed the assistant warden, Cathy, from the BOQ past the main prison, then across the fields where a work gang was marching slowly in the glare and mist, carrying hoes straight upright against their shoulders, the angled blades a jagged clutter above their bowed heads. The workers were mostly black men, in cuffed jeans and pale blue shirts or white T-shirts, overseen by white men on horseback with guns. There was something pornographic about the scene, as if it had arisen out of someone’s half-understood fantasies. The fields beyond spread out lush and green, the endless landscape from last night now exposed in daylight. Angola had once been several adjacent slave plantations in central Louisiana. The original slaves were said to have been brought from Angola.
We had come to witness the rehearsal and production of a passion play, “The Life of Jesus Christ,” performed by Angola’s inmates and their female counterparts from the nearby women’s penitentiary in St. Gabriel. I write fiction, nonfiction, sometimes a hybrid of both, and I’ve tried to understand the impulse behind this blendingto understand that there’s something I’m not seeing that most other people are (and I hope something I’m seeing that they’re not). What I seem to resist is the idea that the real and the imaginary don’t bleed into each other. Perhaps this is because what really happens in the world so often belies any notion of “realism.” It was an implausible coincidence, for example, that had led Deborah and me to this project at Angola. Both of us had a parent who was murdered. Both murders happened in the same city, Phoenix, Arizona. They were both contract killings. I don’t know how you’d calculate the odds of Deborah and I ever meeting after such an implausible coincidence, but many years later, after establishing our separate lives, we did meet, when I moved to New Orleans, where it turned out our houses were two blocks away from each other. You can see my roof from Deborah’s roof. A strange coincidencetransformative, unbidden, like a fire. It seemed possible to me that by collaborating on this prison project, we might force this coincidence to become more than just an unlikely wound that we shared. As I wrote rather grandiloquently in my letter to the assistant warden, asking for permission to visit, I thought that by interpreting this play about the possibility of redemption in the wake of violence, Deborah and I might somehow enact “a kind of redemption of our own.” That word “redemption” strikes me as dubious now, a sign not exactly of bad faith but of something inside myself I don’t trust. That first night in the BOQ, I’d spread a thin sheet over one of the single beds in the dorm room and tried to read in that place usually occupied by guards sleeping between their shifts. The mattress was covered in plasticeven the pillow was covered in thick plastic. I examined my shoes and jeans and socks on the floor in the greenish, clinical light, and I felt within my dread of that place an uncomfortable wish to be there, that place where I didn’t wish to be. Deborah had been there many times, photographing the inmates. They were ambiguous portraits, often beautiful and ugly at the same time. Of course shooting photographs in black-and-white is not an analogy for “seeing the world in black-and-white.” On the contrary, the entire interest of black-and-white photography is in the infinite range of grays.
We parked outside the arena, the facility where they hold the prison rodeo twice each year, and I began to help Deborah with some of her equipment, but I could soon tell that she didn’t want my help. Something about stepping outside the truck into the brightness and dust made us fretful, overly alert. It scrambled our signals, and somewhere in here I lost track of what was happening. I saw a camel standing in the dead grass outside the arena’s gatesblonde, tall, attended by two men in cowboy clothes, who looked at me without humor. Inside the arena, beyond the brown-painted gates and fences, men in work boots and jeans were still building the stage sets. So far, three wooden crosses bedecked with ropes had been raised on a mound of dirt. Beyond them, amid a few ranks of potted bushes and shrubs and a fake Roman temple made of plywood, a crowd of about seventy inmates was standing around chatting, the men in street clothes, the women from St. Gabriel in jeans and light blue shirts bearing the initials of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in black letters. Cathy, the assistant warden, was responding to a call on her cell phone. Deborah had disappeared beneath the grandstand where she would set up for her photographs, formal portraits of the actors before a black velvet screen. The person who was supposed to be my escort had already lost interest and retreated far into the shade, texting. There were several animals involved in the productionthe camel I’d just seen, some horses that now came charging across the arena at full speedbut the donkey, Cathy was learning now, had been quarantined because he had a communicable disease, and so maybe there would be no donkey this week. A woman who spoke with a Scottish accent was asking a prison employee what kinds of fruits they might find with which to bedeck the table for the Last Supper scenewere there melons, she asked, looking for something large enough for spectators to see from a distancebut no, there were no melons. Grapes? Nono grapes. Apples and oranges, that was pretty much itapples and oranges, plus some bread. It was dawning on me, as I stood there watching all this, that the men working on the still-emerging sets with tape measures, levels, hammers, and saws were not hired carpenters but inmates. The man standing next to me in the Texas Longhorns cap with the Nikon camera was an inmate. He was a reporter for the prison magazine, he told me, covering the same story I was covering. A man who happens to be the son of God is betrayed, convicted, and sentenced to death. On the third day, he rises from the grave to save the world with a message not of retribution but of mercy.
As I said, I’d begun to lose track of what was happening almost as soon as Deborah parked her truck, and this sensation didn’t stopI was alone, and began to wander, talking to more and more people on the edges of the action, writing down what they said, although little of it registered clearly. When I wrote down the word “murder,” for example, it didn’t register much more than if I were a nurse writing the word “allergy” in a medical chart. The reporter in the baseball cap was a murderer. He’d set his girlfriend’s house on fire then shot her to death. I couldn’t get this past act to match up with his presentin the arena, he was just a middle-aged man, small, soft-spoken, with a slightly sunken-in, sunburned face. Like almost every other inmate at Angola, he was expected to die on the prison grounds. In Louisiana, a life sentence literally means life. There’s almost no parole. The state also has the highest rate of incarceration of any place in the world.
“A life sentence comes with an exclamation mark and a question mark,” one inmate told me. “’Wow!’ And then, ‘When this gonna end?’”
“Imagine you’re trapped in a barn,” another inmate said. “Now imagine that the barn is on fire. You will do anything you can to get out of that barn. You will do anything you have to to get out of that barn.”
Murder, kidnapping, rape, drug addiction, poverty, abuse, all pointing to the terminus: life in prison. Deborah had told me to come without expectations, to not prepare, and it was true, I didn’t need to prepare, or even ask any questions beyond the most basic ones, but I didn’t know what a burden of information was there waiting for me. I interviewed over forty people over the course of that week, and what they told me filled up more than ninety pages of typewritten notes. After awhile, I became an ear and an eye, nothing else. I found it impossible to go to the bathroom or even find a drink of water much of the time, because on my way to do either I would be interrupted with another story, another tragedy, another life presented for my appraisal.
Imagine you’re trapped in a barn. Now imagine that the barn is on fire.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Vengeance
“Zachary Lazar's Vengeance is an elegant act of imagination and empathy that shows just how easily these can curdle, sometimes irretrievably, into skepticism and self-doubt. It's the story of a writer with a haunted past who meets, on a visit to Angola, a prisoner currently serving a life sentence for murder. Does he belong in prison, or is he, as he credibly claims, an innocent man? Or is the truth only ever a matter of speculation and the stories we choose to tell?”
“Zachary Lazar’s Vengeance is so sharply and skillfully imagined, I had to keep reminding myself: ‘It’s a novel. It’s a novel.’ The storyabout an alleged criminal serving time for his supposed crimeis mysterious in all the ways it ought to be; the riddle of his main character is the riddle of our justice system: How do we figure out what’s true, what’s real, what’s fair? Lazar made me think he had genuine tenderness for the people in this book. His writing can be beautifully quiet. But just when I worried he might go soft on me, he’d hit me upside the glasses with such raw clarity that I got a little disoriented, which is precisely what I love about his books.”
Sarah Koenig, This American Life and Serial