Mitchell Smith

Simon and Schuster. 558 pp. $19.95

In this sadly earnest lump of a book, the author, Mitchell Smith, has laid out a bewildering and enervating all-expense-paid tour of American prison life.

Smith's prose is enough to stun a hummingbird, and he shows no mercy. In "Stone City," the reader encounters a Dickensian gallery of types to be found in the average American state penitentiary -- including the obligatory bullies, transvestites and martyrs, con men and sadists. The book is more than 500 pages long, and it not only catalogues -- by name yet! -- dozens of convicts and their guards, but it gives a belly-churning inventory of the food they eat (or at least try to hold down).

If this all sounds depressing, well, who ever said prison life was a picnic at the Zanesville, Ohio, waterworks? It isn't, and it probably never has been, and it probably never will be, and okay, fair enough; the men who populate this book have committed crimes and they deserve to be punished -- but can the same be said for the unwary reader?

The book attempts to pass itself off as a tough-guy murder mystery. A number of convicts are killed in a number of unpleasant ways because of their supposed involvement in a fight-fixing mess involving an inter-penitentiary team boxing match. This business is investigated by a middle-aged convict named Bauman, a former college professor now doing reasonably hard time because his car struck and killed a teenage girl while he was drunk. He feels guilty about the accident (whenever he can get around to remembering it), but for the most part he is an uncaring SOB, and he doesn't summon an awful lot of sympathy.

Most of the novel's inhabitants are unsympathetic, to say the least, and the reader is grateful most of them are in the slammer. A great slathering mess of blood is shed in "Stone City," and it abounds with betrayals and abuse, but we're seldom involved. Its characters grope rather than act; their motives almost everywhere are sleazy, greedy and narrow. It all makes for tough and unrewarding reading, and even the novel's concluding bloodbath doesn't amount to a whole lot, considering the participants' stubborn ugliness.

There are some good things in this novel. The dialogue sounds right on target. And certain scenes are quite moving. At one point, a hot-air balloon comes swooping past with a load of tourists, and we are moved by the convicts' reactions as they watch it go on. One of the minor characters, a homosexual named Cousins, elicits our sympathy. And there is a developing tension in all this stuff, make no mistake. (This tension gives dimension to the bloodbath, and we actually are able to identify with the sad, broken cons who take over the last dozen pages or so.)

But none of this overcomes the smell of formaldehyde. This novel meanders when it should at least be walking at a brisk clip; its prose is gummy and frustrating, and there is no particular dramatic pacing. It is didactic when it simply should content itself with telling a story. Just because its protagonist is a tenured professor doesn't mean the reader has to be punished with torrents of tenured-professor prose.

The reviewer is the author of many novels, including "The Ideal, Genuine Man" and "Barb."