I’m in the odd but not unpleasant position of regularly receiving in the mail books ordered for me by strangers whose identities I often have no way of ascertaining. This has added a degree of intrigue to my life. I wish I knew, for instance, who keeps sending me black militant literature so that I could express my thanks, or figure out who’s trying to set me up, or whatever. I’m kidding, of course, but at least one of these books, Soledad Brother, turns out to be on the list of proscribed material that on some U.S. prison compounds constitutes procedural evidence of involvement in the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang, which in turn can lead to indefinite solitary confinement (I happen to know this only because I was recently contacted by Shane Bauer, the journalist who did his own stretch of solitary in an Iranian prison a couple of years back while awaiting trial on trumped-up espionage charges; upon his return, he did a fine piece for Mother Jones on the excessive manner in which solitary is used here in the United States, a copy of which he kindly sent me and which I believe can be read online as well). This got me to wondering whether a honkey such as myself could be accused of being a Black Guerrilla member on such grounds, which of course would be rather silly — but if not, then it would seem that there are some books that can in effect be possessed by white inmates but not by black ones. These are the sorts of absurdities that arise when prison policy is left to the discretion of prison administrators rather than sentient human beings.
I’m also curious as to who sent the four-volume, 2,000-page English translation of a 14th-century Chinese novel that was shipped to me the other day from Beijing. Outlaws of the Marsh, according to the back cover summary, has over 100 protagonists — not characters, mind you, but protagonists. The total number of characters is probably unknown.
With the irrational sense of virtue that accompanies the undertaking of any difficult task regardless of whether there is any good reason to attempt such a thing to begin with, I sat down with a pad of paper and a pencil and started reading. A mere four pages in, I had dutifully jotted down the names and positions of some dozen or so high officials attached to the court of Ren Zong, third emperor of the Song dynasty. An excerpt from my notes:
Zhao Zhe – Premier
Wen Yanbo – His deputy
Fan Zhongyan – deputy premier
A famine strikes, so General Hong Xin is dispatched to retrieve the divine teacher Zhang that he might intercede with the gods. Naturally, Xin manages to cause the accidental release of 108 demons from the monastery crypt before arranging this. Then we are informed that “Emperor Ron Zong ruled for 42 years and died without leaving a son,” and the plot resumes “a long time after,” leaving me behind with my now useless list of deputies and fucking deputy premiers from the long-gone Zong Administration (not that I’ll miss it, prone as it clearly was to just sort of lurching from crisis to crisis).
But the story continued, and 200 pages later, I had compiled quite a list of character names, including Nine Dragons Shi Jin, Miraculous Strategist Zhu Wu, Gorge-Leaping Tiger Chen Da, White Spotted Snake Yung Chun, Sagacious Lu, Accomplished Cast Iron Buddha Cui, Qui Second Son Flying Messenger from Hell, Rat Crossing the Street Zhang the Third, Snake in the Grass Li the Fourth, and Fu An, “better known as Dried Pecker Head.”
Outlaws is nothing if not colorful. It may even suffer from a surplus of color. There are the inimitable fight scenes:
“He landed a blow on Zheng’s nose that flattened it to one side and brought the blood flowing like the sauces in a condiment shop — salty, sour, and spicy. ‘Mother-raping thief!’ said the major.”
… there are the charming instances of traditional Middle Kingdom law enforcement techniques:
“‘Major Lu Da has fled to escape punishment, no one knows where. I’ve arrested these neighbors and a landlord.'”
… and as is so often the case with literature written by the Chinese, there are here and there passages in which something just seems off, as if it had actually been composed by an advanced yet unfinished artificial intelligence that has escaped from some DARPA black operations site and is now roaming the internet, frantically writing prose in an effort to pass itself off as human:
“‘What right do you have to make sport of a respectable woman in times of peace and order?'”
Perhaps I oversold that one. Anyway, it’s an interesting book.
Not having internet access can be disconcerting. For the last several months, I’ve been trying to figure out whether or not Gerald Ford is dead, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I was able to arrive at an answer. You might wonder why I didn’t just have somebody on the outside look it up for me. The problem is that I always forgot to ask whenever I called someone up. And on the three or four occasions each day when I would think to myself, “Oh, right, got to find out about Ford,” I was disinclined to call someone from jail simply to ask if Gerald Ford is still alive. Out in the world, I would end up having to go online and pull up Ford’s Wikipedia page twice a year on average, six months being about as long as I could go before forgetting if it had turned out that he had died several years ago or was in fact still living in whatever state Ford retired to — assuming he was retired and not serving as a board member of some hedge fund or being dead.
This nervous obsession with Ford’s mortality all began back in 2003 or 2004 or whenever it was that Reagan died. I was sitting there watching Reagan’s funeral — which, of course, was a very elaborate and high-imperial affair fit for a pretend WWII veteran who single-handedly won the Cold War with his unflinching pro-anti-pro-nuclear arms policy — when suddenly I thought, “Oh, no! What if Gerald Ford dies next week?” My thinking was that it would be sort of mean to put on the paltry, by-the-numbers state funeral merited by a second-rate president like Ford just a week or so after the big Reagan send-off, in commemoration of which there had been proclaimed 100 days of gladiator fights and the forgiveness of all debts, and thereafter, as you’ll recall, the president’s finest weapons, surviving wives, and 10 yoke of oxen had been placed along with the perfumed corpse itself onto a longboat that was then set on fire and cast out to sea. How embarrassing would it be for the nation to follow all of this up with a Ford funeral, with the cheese-and-fruit trays picked up from Costco, the rows and rows of empty pews, and the inevitable, grueling six-hour keynote address by the ghost of Leonid Brezhnev? Alternatively, we could try to spare the Ford family’s feelings, pulling out all the stops on the decorations and hiring some professional mourners and maybe passing around the hat for $400 to send off to that one company that will name a star after your loved one (although I can’t imagine where one gets the authority to just name stars after people), but somehow I think Betty Ford would have detected a false note.
I do remember that a decent interval passed after Reagan’s funeral without Gerald Ford characteristically putting everyone into another difficult situation by dying at the wrong time, and so gradually I was able to start living my life again. But I never was able to keep track of him after that. And then, of course, I was thrown in jail, and although this isn’t plainly written down in any federal guidelines or anything, it’s implicitly understood that one of the informal means by which federal inmates are punished is that they have no reliable method by which to find out what’s going on with the various ex-presidents. Really, you’re at the mercy of whatever asshole friends you can manage to get on the phone at a moment’s notice. One guy I know told me that George H.W. Bush had just announced that he has AIDS, and I went on believing this for several days. Another of my so-called “friends” gave me this whole bullshit story about how George W. is now painting people’s portraits. Needless to say I don’t appreciate this sort of thing.
Finally, the other day, I happened to see a piece in The Economist about an event at the LBJ Library commemorating the 1963 Civil Rights Acts. The article noted in passing that there are five men living who have held the U.S. presidency, which gave me a framework by which to finally work this out. Now, I knew Carter isn’t dead because his vitality is shored up by a never-ending regime of ecstatic prayer and sexual intercourse. I knew neither of the Bushes is dead because of the alchemical life-extension serum that all Skull and Bones members in good standing are given each year at Bohemian Grove. I knew Bill Clinton isn’t dead because Hillary Clinton hasn’t scandalized everyone with a hasty remarriage to another woman. And I knew Obama isn’t dead because then Biden would be the president, and Biden can’t be the president. That’s five living presidents. So, according to my calculations, Gerald Ford must be dead.
Come to think of it, I actually do remember Ford dying. We were all sitting at our desks, passing around some keen baseball cards and talking about how keen it was when Johnny took Dead Man’s Curve in his souped-up Hot Rod and making fun of Suzy for having polio when Teacher finally came in with a sort of dazed look on his face. Billy, the class clown, said, “Gee, Mr. Applethorpe, you look like you just traded your best pair of roller skates for a mess of wooden nickels!” It was the sort of biting, impeccably phrased bon mot for which class clowns of the mid-20th century were rightfully feared by all teachers in those days, and I thought Billy would get it for sure this time, just as certain as Uncle Joe Stalin has a keen mustache. But Teacher just sort of wandered over to him, not really seeing anything he was looking at, and patted Billy’s head. Then he went over to his own desk at the front of the classroom and sat down, started shuffling through the homework like he always did in the mornings — and then he just put his head down on the desk and began to sob. Me, I thought he’d gone crazy as a Red Indian, but then the principal appeared in the doorway and announced, “Children, former President Gerald Ford is dead.” There were gasps all around, and soon we were all crying. Then Teacher pulled a revolver out from the desk, stuck it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. They never did manage to scrape all the blood off the wall.
Bible Verse of the Day: Leviticus 14:5
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look. Then, if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedar wood and scarlet yarn and hyssop. And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water. He shall take the live bird with the cedar wood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed in the fresh water.’ ”
In Loving Memory of Gerald Ford
19?? – 20??
Goodnight, Sweet Prince
[Editor’s note: Barrett Brown has been incarcerated for more than a year. He is being held in a federal detention facility in Seagoville, Texas, awaiting trial. This is the sixth installment of The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail. Go here if you’d like to send him a book to read or put some money in his commissary account. He is inmate 45047-177. Go here to contribute to his legal defense fund and learn more about the charges against him.]