With a flourish of melodrama, William Styron let it be known last week that his "heart went out" to Norman Mailer over the Jack Henry Abbott case because "I have had an Abbott in my life." Styron's incarcerated protege escaped from prison and kidnaped and raped a woman, but: "I haven't lost faith in him. I hope to be able to walk through New York City with him some day soon."
Lord have mercy. Why can't Styron just hole up in his affluent Connecticut exurb and write novels, which he does surpassingly well, instead of getting into the newspapers and making a fool of himself? It is almost impossible to conjure up a more ridiculous image of cozy liberal sentimentality than that of Styron and his paroled pen pal strolling together up Fifth Avenue, soon to detour over to Park for luncheon at the Four Seasons. Does Styron's knee jerk in his sleep? Does he really think that he has found a closet Dostoevski behind bars? Does he really believe that this fellow's art is so overpowering that, if allowed to practice it in the full glow of freedom, he will never again kidnap or rape or do whatever it was that got him into the pokey in the first place?
If he really believes all that, then he is as naive and credulous as Mailer, which is saying something. Mailer, it will be recalled, entered into a correspondence with Abbott, a certifiable rotten apple who was then, as for much of his life, doing time. He was impressed by the quality and force of Abbott's prose, in particular its depiction of the horrors of prison life, and helped him get it published as a book, "In the Belly of the Beast," which came out last year to great yawps of critical acclaim in all the places you'd expect such yawps. Mailer also endorsed Abbott's application for parole and promised him a job should it be granted. In due time it was, and Abbott was released into the embrace of the New York literati. Six weeks later he killed a man named Richard Adan after a trivial altercation in a restaurant, and was convicted last week of first-degree manslaughter.
This is what reports have Mailer saying on the subject. The killing of Richard Adan was "absolute tragedy, hideous waste and horror," and "something that the people close to Abbott will have to live with" -- which is more than can be said for Richard Adan. "I'm sorry as hell about the way it turned out," he said, but added: "I'm willing to gamble with certain elements in society to save this man's talent." "Prison," he said, "will destroy this man's talent." And: "Culture is worth a little risk." And: "A major sentence would destroy him. Adan has already been destroyed. At least let Abbott become a writer . . . It is far too easy to say send him away forever . . . Society demands you take certain risks. Otherwise, you have a fascistic society."
Cut through all the windy posturing, all the huff and puff ("If you want blood, you can't have my blood. You can have my psychic blood"), and what you have is this: It is worth risking the safety of innocent men and women so that Jack Henry Abbott can be granted the freedom he allegedly needs (bear in mind that "In the Belly of the Beast" was written in prison) to develop his "talent." Ars longa, vita brevis. Therefore let the lion prowl the streets, if the lion will give us Literature.
This is sheer "romanticism," as the playwright Edward Albee said: The "assumption . . . that if someone is a gifted writer he deserves . . . treatment above that given to other people." In Albee's penetrating phrase, it is "the most deadly folly." Among those who seem to be seduced by it are Norman Mailer and William Styron -- and for a while Jerzy Kosinski, though he got out when the going got hot -- men whose reputations bulk large, whether deservedly so or not, in contemporary literature, men presumably of some considerable sophistication and experience.
Don't bet on it. Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in a newsroom is well aware that America's prisons are overflowing with would-be authors. They are forever writing to reporters, editors and columnists, asking for editorial advice and directions to the nearest agent or publisher. Some of their letters seem sincere, others seem manipulative; all have a rather similar ring, in the way that communique's from jailhouse lawyers tend to sound the same.
It is impossible for the outsider to tell what's going on -- to draw the distinction between a prisoner who has a genuine desire to improve himself and one who merely wants to get out any old way he can. The letters deserve polite replies and, if it can be given, the information they request. But newspaper people have known for decades that these letters can be black holes that will gobble up the unwary. The best strategy is to keep one's distance; the rehabilitation of convicted criminals is for the penal system, not for the city desk or the book-review department.
Nor is it for the Authors' Guild -- a message that seems not to have gotten through to Mailer and Styron. For reasons that probably have a little to do with genuine sentiment and a lot to do with self-gratification, they have gotten themselves into the penitentiary business -- with, in Mailer's case, absolutely disastrous results. That the results in Styron's case will be much better, should his pet rapist gain release, seems unlikely.
It looks as if these writers are playing with the lives of real people much as they might play with the lives of fictitious ones. Jack Henry Abbott wasn't so much Mailer's literary prote'ge' as a feather in his cap: a real live crook -- one who writes with his fists! -- to be put on exhibit in the salons of radical chic. Jack Henry Abbott was better than a lifetime subscription to The Nation: He was walking, talking proof of Mailer's rightmindedness, his concern for the downtrodden, his unwavering commitment to Art. Then Abbott went out and stabbed Richard Adan to death, and Mailer suddenly discovered that he was "obviously a man who is not ready to live quietly in New York society."
Good old Norman: for everything he has a suave explanation, a nimble rationale. "I didn't read Abbott well enough when he got out because he was such a gentleman," he says, "didn't pay attention to the little warnings he gave me in a quiet little voice." But someone who is listening to the trumpet's blare of his own ego is not likely to hear much from outside. Still, it's worth a try: The message is that Mailer got involved with Jack Henry Abbott for thrills and didn't bargain for chills. He should stick to his typewriter, where he can order the world any old way he wants. The real one is full of unpleasant surprises, for which in the end someone must be accountable.