"God of the Rodeo," Daniel Bergner's expansion of his eloquent Harper's magazine story about the annual rodeo at Angola, La., state penitentiary, presses down hard on America's open sores: race, class, masculinity, religion, family, violence. It's a book that's hard to accept and hard to take, but difficult to shake from your mind.
Almost all of the 5,000 residents of Angola -- a former slave plantation once termed "the bloodiest prison in America" -- are African-Americans, supervised by whites on horseback as they pick crops on the prison farm. The average inmate will die in jail, and most receive no visits after their first three years. A man in Jonathan Stack's and Liz Garbus' powerful documentary "The Farm: Angola, USA" put it this way: "Serving time is just like a puzzle. A 2,000-piece puzzle ... Your life is scattered. You the one got to put it back together."
The masochistic rituals of the rodeo, a local attraction for 32 years, would seem an unlikely strategy for putting a life back together. In one event, called "Guts & Glory," a red chip worth $100 is put between a bull's horns. Thirty willing convicts go into the ring on foot (without the protection rodeo professionals wear) and try to pluck the chip without being gored or trampled. Often, they aren't lucky. Noting the audience's applause, Bergner writes: "I'm sure some of the reaction to the event was electrified, exhilarated, the thrill of watching men in terror made forgivable because the men were murderers." Bergner's brilliance lies in making us understand what seems at first unambiguously self-destructive, futile and ugly.
He makes the rodeo a window into the foreignness of prison life, and it's the long year between rodeos that makes the book. The annual spectacle -- as well as the prison's clubs and ecstatic religious revivals -- gives men whom most people would prefer to remain invisible the sense of being alive, as well as something to look forward to. After 20 years inside, the dream of winning a belt buckle for the son who won't talk when you call is everything. The makeshift cowboys in the opening scene are the men Bergner will follow through the book: Terry Hawkins, who killed his slaughterhouse boss with a meat-ax and aches during hymns ("O the blood of Jesus/it washes white as snow"); Littell Harris, freed in the course of the book after serving 15 years for armed robbery; rodeo hero Johnny Brooks, engaged to a woman who saw him ride. When they talk about their crimes, there's always a moment in which they can only say they "exploded." The question is: What laid those mines?
This book is also about that other America, the outlaw, hungry country where grandmothers live in shacks and drug dealers watch everything from their porches. And along with the jagged and heartsick trajectories of men like Johnny Brooks, it's about Bergner's journey from devotion to disillusionment with the prison's warden, Burl Cain. For about half of the book, he -- like many reporters before him -- swallows Cain's tough-love-and-Jesus bluster whole. At the outset he confesses to his readers, "Ridiculous as it may sound, I sensed that at the prison I might find affirmation for my own tenuous faith in God." He also notes that his own father, a public health official, had been "lackluster." A man's longing for both God and a father is a dangerous thing, and Bergner's dogged willingness to buy Cain's self-serving hooey is nauseating.
As the troubling -- and illegal -- aspects of Cain's "shepherding" come to light, and Bergner spends less time listening to Cain preach and more time with the inmates, he begins to identify with them. But we come to understand that like the convicted men, the warden is not an easy man to judge -- and that's one of the triumphs of Bergner's unwavering eye and his compassionate, well-paced storytelling. "God of the Rodeo" also has flashes of unexpected humor: "I risked expressing to Littell what I sometimes felt," Bergner writes, "that Angola was an unexpectedly positive place. 'Man,' he said, 'Angola is a fucking super-negative piece of negative shit.'" What's ultimately most compelling about Bergner's book, however, is that it lacks any agenda save the search for something human in the piss and misery of the concrete cells. He succeeds. As long as that is possible, we are not entirely inhuman.