Take two white ex-cons in California, where prisons grab more state tax dollars than do colleges and universities. Add a woman worker from Zimbabwe whose death by drowning propels the ex-convict duo to search for her killer(s). Sprinkle in unctuous cops and a lewd financier. Stir at a simmering heat. Now you have the main ingredients for Prudence Couldn’t Swim, author James Kilgore’s page-turner from PM Press in Oakland.
That city of extreme wealth and poverty is the setting for Kilgore’s murder mystery. He brings a flavor of its current and historic contours to life with his characters. Meet Calvin Winter and Red Eye, his prison ‘homie’ who pull out what they think are all the stops in a search for motives and suspects in the death of Prudence, the former’s wife of convenience born in Zimbabwe.
Kilgore seasons the twin parolees’ detective work with a dollop of dramatic irony. Thus we see before Winter and his sidekick do their underwhelming investigative skills. Kilgore gives us a flavor of what doing hard time did to these ex-cons’ judgment of themselves and their view of potential homicide suspects. Appearances can and do deceive Winter and Red Eye in their arc as pursuers and pursued of gangsters and gumshoes.
A little like a Dostoevsky character, Kilgore knows about living underground. To escape prosecution for actions with the Symbionese Liberation Army (known in part for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst), he hid from US authorities stateside. Later, Kilgore fled to southern Africa. There, he lived under a false identity, earned a Ph.D., co-authored a book of non-fiction, and was an educational researcher.
Kilgore could run, and did, but was unable to hide forever. Eventually, the long arm of Uncle Sam’s law enforcement apprehended and extradited him to face charges for his SLA time. He spent the next six-plus years behind prison bars in California. There, Kilgore taught himself to write fiction. To this end, he read writers such as Patricia Cornwell and Walter Mosely. He also wrote and got feedback from friends on the outside.
Zimbabwe is the other setting for Kilgore’s novel. He lived there on the lam. His is a vivid sense of the ebbs and flows of that society, urban and rural. Kilgore’s Zimbabwean characters come alive in part through their spot-on conversations and conventions.
Further, it is quite intriguing how Kilgore brings African migrants together with California prison parolees shaped by white supremacy. Take Red Eye. He is a former prison gang member. His “SS” tattoos signify violent attacks on others. Kilgore met more than one such prisoner from the lowest socio-economic strata of US society in the Golden State’s prisons, where skin color segregation is the rule.
Kilgore employs two narrators for his hard-boiled tale. One is Winter. He grew up in the foster care system, nothing nice. As a prison parolee, he battles demons from the effects of social isolation with a deep thirst for Wild Turkey and material comforts. Is living well the best revenge? Readers can be the judge. In any case, Winter sports a cynical and at times comical point of view borne of con games and crime sprees won and lost. This juxtaposition works.
At the same time, an omniscient narrator provides a profile of Prudence and the slings and arrows of post-independence life in Zimbabwe. Born into stark poverty, she is on a path out of it via elite schooling. Prudence’s bitter fate ends that dream. She joins a global division of labor that reproduces poverty and inequality in developed and developing nations, arriving at Winter’s abode in Oakland via a marriage of convenience.
In Kilgore’s novel, fear, greed and lust propel characters. Prudence migrates to earn income. Winter and Red Eye walk sideways paroled from the US prison system, which locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other nation. The trio’s social intersections and contradictions entertain and enlighten.
Kilgore has a keen ear for dialogue, eye for detail and heart for the exploited. His plot builds to a surprising resolution, with inter-and intra-class conflicts and conflicted humans galore. Kilgore’s characters grapple with issues (not) all of their own making, laying bare some social contradictions, present and past.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento, Calif. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2013
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