“Letters from the Pen” is a collection of weekly newspaper columns written by an inmate in the federal penitentiary at Forrest City and published by the hebdomadal Lovely County Citizen in Eureka Springs from 1999 to 2004.
The columns were written over that span by Dale McCurry of Eureka Springs, who was serving a five-year term for a white-collar crime involving business fraud. They were published under a pen name, Curly MacRed, an anagram of his real name, because prison regulations prohibited his using his real name or the names of other prisoners or prison personnel. He also was forbidden to receive any compensation for the work.
McCurry wrote 242 columns for the Citizen during his incarceration, and the publisher of the paper at that time, Mary Pat Boian, has assembled a majority of them into a book that will be the first number from the book-publishing firm she has established at Eureka Springs.
She says in a promotional blurb about “Letters From the Pen” that it “speaks to our inner jailbird,” and, silly as that sounds, I suppose the empathy it suggests really is the book’s main attraction. McCurry seems a decent man whose plunge into disreputability could’ve happened to any of us at one time or another in this hectic world, and through these short pieces we follow him through the painful descent and then back up again into hope and humility and self-acceptance through self-forgiveness. He gets his life together — the GYST process, it has been called -- and through his columns, week by week, we can see it happening — and root for him.
The columns are qualitatively uneven (true of the work of all newspaper columnists), and there are a couple of distractions that lessen the book. One is that the columns are just too short to carry much freight. If you’re Confucius or Solomon, you can pack considerable wisdom and a good measure of imperishable prose into 400 words, but it takes the ordinarily mortal scrivener at least twice that to get a toe wet. James Thurber, who said he averaged 900 words, consequently considered himself an aphorist. Because McCurry’s articles are so brief, one often gets the feeling that he’s merely yelping at passing prison-life experiences that he might have been able to explore with good profit at greater length and a more leisurely pace. There’s little description or characterization; just no room for them in the original format, and expanding old columns to flesh out a book somehow never works, and wouldn’t have here.
The other distraction is also nigh universal among newspaper columnists, and that is the sense that, as the weekly deadline approached, the columnist, unmoved or torpid or ill or despondent or filled with performance anxiety that particular week, waited until the last minute and then bailed, with some hastily contrived observations or opinions on current events or the rogue newsmaker du jour. All columnists do that, and it’s a harmless enough procedure except when the poorly wrought column is embalmed for later recirculation in a book. Books of columns always suffer from that awkward, jerky Frankenstein’s monster quality, some more than others.
Dale McCurry’s collection has its moments, though, and he learned the hard way to use to his advantage the limitations that were imposed on him, including the scarcity of column space, as when he was able to encapsulate his entire five-year prison experience into a quotation from Groucho Marx: “I’ve had a wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”
“Letters From the Pen” is paperback, $14.95. Boian Books, according to the publisher, will be scouring the Ozarks for additional manuscripts that have been hidden away “by shy writers who’d rather write than publish, who’d rather write than sell or socialize.”
I have a notion that Linda G. Tucker, assistant professor of English at Southern Arkansas University, is onto something interesting if not hugely consequential in her book “Lockstep and Dance: Images of Black Men in Popular Culture,” published this month by the University Press of Mississippi.
But I’ll be dogged if I know what it is, her book having been composed in the most exquisitely impenetrable sociological prose of my reading experience — a long experience with such literature that has ventured up to the very edge of opaque.
There were several times in perusing “Lockstep” when I thought I might be approaching the recognizable if not the comprehensible, but those times weren’t numerous and they were inevitably brief — before the fog closed in again.
I remember coming across the term “writ large” many times — maybe 500 times, maybe only 50 — and given time I might remember other things I encountered in the text. I’ll let you know if I do.
It’s hardcover, and $45.