Draper's prison blues

From the interstate, Huntsville looks like every other midsize small town this state has to offer; it's a flickering cavalcade of Waffle Houses and Texacos and $19-a-night motels, a pit stop on the way to somewhere by way of nowhere at all.

It isn't till you get off the highway that the city begins to take shape--Sam Houston State University, Sam Houston's old home, Sam Houston's gravesite, Sam Houston's spittoon.

In the old town square, currently under renovation (OK, they're rebuilding a wall, but that's gotta count for something), next to the decent-enough cafe (which really ought to be its name), is the Texas Prison Museum, not far from the Walls Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections. There, among the spoons-cum-shivs and other prison party favors, sits Old Sparky, the electric chair that sent many men to their maker before the gummint pulled the plug and broke out the needle. And to think, the only reason Huntsville became Texas' prison outpost was because Sam Houston was right pissed off that his hometown didn't get to become capital city, damn Austin to hell. Some consolation prize.

Huntsville's the one Texas city every native-born son and daughter knows of but would prefer not to visit (unless you count Houston, which goes for all Dallasites). Tell someone you're going to Huntsville, and nine times out of 10 it's not for a Huntsville Arts Commission-sponsored shindig. The place wears its prison togs even on bright and shiny days; it's built on crime, the evil done by those sitting in the cells that dot the horizon. It's a wonder no one thought to set a novel in Huntsville before Robert Draper--of Texas Monthly's staff box, till GQ came calling with a big-money deal--set down stakes. Larry McMurtry made a fortune writing about Texas towns far less interesting; Draper could spend the rest of his life penning tall tales about Huntsville and still only scratch the surface of the surface. It's a town full of tangential characters in one book who can become central figures in the next; imagine what's just outside the walls of HBO's Oz.

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Draper's first novel, Hadrian's Walls (published in March by Knopf), is set in the Huntsville stand-in of Shepherdsville, a desolate sort of place where everyone, it seems, works for the state penitentiary. That alone's good stuff--the sort of story Texas Monthly used to write about before it hopped in the front seat with Farrah and Sandra. But Draper's fiction entry ups the ante: His book's mostly about the relationship between innocent "bad guy" Hadrian Coleman and guilty "good guy" Sonny Hope. When they were in their teens, Hadrian killed a judge with a hard-on for children (in this case, Sonny), and Sonny let his buddy take the rap; no defense like a shut mouth. Sonny goes on to prosper in Shepherdsville, meaning he becomes bossman at the state prison--where Hadrian sits, paying for the crime he did, but didn't, commit. Eventually, Hadrian kills again and escapes, only to have Sonny pardon him while he's on the run. Hadrian comes back to town, where an even more terrible sort of imprisonment awaits him. Lesson: Never owe the warden a favor, even if he used to be your best friend.

Draper composes like a magazine writer just beginning to flex his fiction muscle: The prose is dry, to the point, descriptive but never overly so. The joy of this book, which barely takes place behind the prison's walls, is in the small, oppressive details--for instance, the characters who have lived so long in this one-prison town they've turned into ghosts. No one's quite as interesting as Jann Wenner--the lead "character" in Draper's excellent 1990 book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History--but so it goes. Fact's always more titillating than fiction. Seriously, have you ever been to Huntsville?

--Robert Wilonsky

Robert Draper will read from his novel Hadrian's Walls May 20 at the Borders Books and Music in Preston Royal. Free. Call (214) 363-1977.

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