The protagonist of Rachel Kushner’s new novel, Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, has grown up in a San Francisco which, she tells us, is a different one to the San Francisco we’ve all heard about:
‘it was not about rainbow flags or beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. It was us girls in the back of someone’s primered Charger or Challenger riding those short, but long, forty eight blocks to the beach, one boy shotgun with a stolen fire extinguisher, flocking people on street corners, randoms blasted white.’
At times like this, Romy can sound very much like she’s straight out of Ginsberg’s Howl – and there’s much of this novel which chimes with that sense of being beat – but then Kushner moves into a more personal, confiding tone and we recognise that behind the bravado, Romy recognises that she has been a victim in a society where the odds are particularly stacked against women. When she describes moments in her childhood, such as ‘I was eleven and had gone downtown to meet Eva, to see a midnight show at a punk rock club. It was late and I was lost,’ her vulnerability is heightened. A man offered her money for a taxi, ‘he would be happy to help me, but we should first go up to his room and have a drink.’ Chilling details in this vein establish Romy’s view of life and she grows up in a world of casual violence and drug abuse. Later, Romy works at the Mars Room, a lap dancing club in which the women despise the male clients and believe that they are ultimately in control.
At the Mars Room, I did not have to show up on time, or smile, or obey any rules, or think of most men as anything other than losers to be exploited but who believed they were exploiting s, and so it was naturally quite hostile as an environment, even as it was coated in pretend submission – our own. The Mars Room was a place where you could do what you wanted; at least I had believed that.’
The illusion of control has already been shattered by the time the novel starts – Romy has been sentenced to two life sentences for the murder of a man stalking her and is being transferred to a women’s prison. At her trial, Romy had been advised to not take the stand and so, as a result,
‘What those twelve people knew was that a young woman of dubious moral character – a stripper – had killed an upstanding citizen, a veteran of the Vietnam War who had sustained a job-related injury and was permanently disabled.’
Kushner presents a penal system stacked against women like Romy and one which is harshly punitive in its treatment of inmates. The key tragedy of Romy’s sentencing is the impact on her young son, Jackson, and elsewhere we see little humanity shown by the guards and the system in relation to families affected. One of the guards tells her, ‘Hall, if you’d wanted to be someone’s mother, you should have thought of that before.’
In spite of, or perhaps as a necessary addition to, the prison setting, Kushner’s tale also features moments of absurd or dark humour, and Romy’s incarceration is made easier by some memorable fellow inmates, the brilliant Conan in particular. The hierarchical struggles and hustles are played out as the women fight to survive as best they can. Everything has a price and can be bartered to secure your position.
‘Sammy Fernandez was teaching me how to pass things through the toilet. You run a line on the riser, to send things up or down. Burritos. Twinkies. Cigarettes. Pruno in a shampoo bottle.’
I haven’t watched Orange is the New Black and so I’m safe from comparisons there. Inevitably, there are elements of Cuckoo’s Nest that came to mind whilst I was reading Kushner’s novel, but this is very much a novel of power exercised over a group of females who have had everything (literally) stripped away and, as such, the prison’s walls and electrified fences serve as both a physical location for Romy Hall’s tale and as a more figurative arena to look at women’s freedoms and lack of choices from young ages. When a teenager gives birth within hours of arriving at prison, Romy and two other inmates struggle violently to be allowed to help her. They are caged for their actions and the mother and newborn are wheeled away. Romy notes ‘Unfortunately for that baby, it was a girl.’