Vital Signs

Sympathy for the Devil

Abbott Redux

One would have thought to have heard the last of Jack Henry Abbott. Back in the early 1980's, you'll remember, Jack Abbott was a literary cause celèbre: here was a great, lost writer, condemned to an unending and unfair prison term, but discovered and redeemed by Norman Mailer. True, Abbott had murdered a man in prison. But Mailer assured us of his wonderful talent; and anyway, the murder was attributable to the brutalization caused by the American prison system itself: Abbott's letters, published as memoirs under Mailer's guidance, bore the ideological title In the Belly of the Beast.

For a certain circle of East Coast literati, Abbott soon became an irresistible symbol of their own alienation from American bourgeois society and values; ensconced in their Central Park West apartments, they too suffered "In the Belly of the Beast." So it wasn't too long before the political pull of Mailer and others won Jack Abbott an early parole from prison, and entrance into a halfway house in New York City. The idea, presumably, was that in this gentler, more humane environment, Abbott's literary genius would be freer to create. But he didn't create. Instead, within a few weeks of his release to the halfway house, Abbott killed again. This time he knifed a waiter in a bar during an argument over the use of the bar's toilet facilities. Abbott fled, but was eventually recaptured,...

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