AUGURY BOOKS, 2015. 194 PAGES. ISBN-13:978-0-9887355-6-9
by Katherine Michalak
Sitting in the breakroom at work, reading. The eye-catching cover of Randall Horton’s memoir, Hook, (velvet black with an insinuatingly-white fishhook front and center) draws attention from my coworker. “Schoolwork or pleasure reading?” she asks.
“Both,” I answer, and I’m relieved when she turns back to her Tupperware lunch, not asking whether I like the book. Liking: it’s such a simple reaction, one that should be reserved for straightforward narratives—not churning texts like this one. I’m still chewing its angular, tongue-startling plateful words, waiting for a describable aftertaste.
Chapter One and the first section of Chapter Two consist of correspondence between Horton, once incarcerated but now ostensibly free, and Lxxxx, a currently imprisoned friend. No casually-jotted note, Horton’s letter expects Lxxxx and his readers to cognize rigorous philosophical concepts and to delve into realities of race and social structures with the bottomless eye of a poet. “I have inhabited the cell door clang,” he writes, “and I can’t escape the image of the pinstripe inmate constructed.” Continuing, he writes, “There it is, that word: construct, or construction, which is another word for confinement on someone else’s terms—a sort of deliberate scaffolding."
More than merely poetic, Horton is a published poet with many awards to his name, including status as a Cave Canem Fellow. He continues chapter two with a prose poem titled, “Journal Note to [Self]: Open Door—”, in which cryptically-delivered language pries into the emotional undertones rippling down a city street in autumn. As the book continues, letters, narrative sections, and prose poetry tag team the task of conveying Horton’s life story. Literarily brazen, he creates bedfellows of poetic alliteration, street speak and academic diction.
From pot-dealing, to international cocaine smuggling, to living on the streets, to stealing designer suits to support his drug habit, Horton’s twenties keep his readers flipping pages. Yet he resists the temptation to use dramatic high points (such as jumping off a second-story ledge when running from police officers) as the meat of his work. While some authors dwell in drama for drama’s sake, because they know it will sell, Horton conveys gun-point moments like a man spitting out words because he has to, not because he wants to romance his audience with shoot-em-up.
Near the end of the book, as he approaches his thirties, Horton faces a five-year prison sentence. While incarcerated, he discovers writing. With all the tenacity that once sent him chasing a high, he now pursues poetry into a new life, determined to leave the construct of addicted criminal behind him.
Transcendence, then, is the crux of Hook. With a straight-shooting eye, Horton demonstrates that for him, the gold nugget of life, if you will, is breaking the bonds that shackle us—whether they be placed by other people or by our own conceptions of self. At the outset, he warns us that “we are all on life’s preverbal hook, being reeled in by society’s constructions." Reflecting on his first night in prison, he says, “I would close and open my eyes to razor and brick and come to understand that I had to free my mind of the way I narrated my life, or I would forever be caught within concrete and iron." Ultimately, he does achieve this about-face in personal narration, with inspiring external results: at the time of this review, he has earned a PhD in English/Creative Writing and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship; has published two memoirs and three poetry books; and is Assistant Professor of English at University of New Haven. All this despite a record of seven felonies.
Liking: it’s a simple feel-good emotion, comfort food for one’s consciousness. The response bestsellers seek to elicit. Often, liking is how we respond to stories that bring us to inspiring vistas—especially those which first make us experience a harrowing uphill journey. Yet although Hook follows this classic redemptive arc, it is not always a likeable memoir: it is too intellectual, too dense with philosophy and athletic syntax, to be thoughtlessly assimilated like a glossy Hollywood flick.
But what about the aftertaste? What emotions does Hook elicit after thoughtful analysis? For me, it brings tears. Tears of gratitude for Horton’s honesty as a memoirist. Tears for the power of love. In the final section of Chapter Seven, titled, “Father, Forgive Me,” his dad stands before a judge in Montgomery County Courthouse, having travelled for a full day to appear as his son’s character witness in a request for shortened prison time. Describing Horton’s positive upbringing, this sixty-seven year-old man conjures before the court—and before Horton himself—the image of a man worth rehabilitating. “My father placed his dignity before the court,” Horton says, “and with teary rivulets coming steady now and his voice trying to stay proud, he begged the judge to give me another chance. Please, please give me my boy back. His is a life worth saving."
This scene dissolves my conflicted responses to Hook’s intellectualism and challengingly poetic lens. Sophisticated, crafted reflection is the rescue rope by which Horton reclaims his own and his family’s dignity, I realize, and its prominent place within the narrative gives us an experience of Horton’s character—an experience that bestseller modulation would rob us of.
Continuing to describe the courtroom scene, Horton says, “In front of a room full of strangers, my father cried. I looked around the room, and the people in the gallery were wiping their eyes." Reading this, I realize I don’t like this book; rather, I am trusting it. Trusting it to be my own rescue rope on down days; to be a text capable of generating hope. A text always nagging at my mind, saying, Narrate your own life so as to bend the bars.