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Book Review : Attempting to Find Justice in a Slow, Creaking System

July 20, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Rats Alley by John H. Irsseld (University of Nevada: $16; 201 pp.)

Several years ago, a young woman drove alone from Los Angeles across the Mojave Desert toward Las Vegas. Just outside of Barstow, she was stopped by a member of the California Highway Patrol. A sexual act occurred, and a few minutes later, the back of the woman's head was blown away. An officer was arrested soon after, but in two separate trials there was a hung jury--even though one of the jury members who voted to acquit opined that, indeed, the officer had committed the crime.

Not until the federal government stepped in was the officer finally incarcerated. That case was also a living essay on differing systems of justice.

"Rats Alley" takes much the same premise and uses it to examine the layers of our justice system, how it affects individuals around one isolated crime. Also, the novel employs its narrative to examine two kinds of justice: the one we think of (if we think of it at all), as having to do with police and courtrooms and juries and everything that seems to come under the heading of "due process," and also the more simple, scary and some might say more convenient system that some people still call "shotgun law."

One-at-a-Time Approach

The story is told in a series of short first-person narratives, and the characters are many. Only once in a while do we get out of the one-mind-at-a-time approach. We see early on that Joe Ben Strother, 17, has enlisted in the Marines, and has just one weekend left to spend as a civilian. Bored silly in his little Texas town, Joe Ben goes down to see a buddy or two in Houston.

Joe Ben is grumpy: His high school girlfriend, Madeline Higley, has been adamant about keeping her virginity even though Joe Ben joined up. There is nothing to do, except maybe steal a van with a painted sunset on its side from a new-car lot. Why would Joe Ben even want to bother? The answer is meant to be implicit: His dad works in a hardware store, his mother does needlepoint that says "Jesus Saves" and there is no money anywhere. , Soon four policemen who ride in two separate cop cars are introduced. William Strunk is black and very prudent. He loves his wife, stays out of debt, keeps up his house payments. His partner, Alonzo Ruiz, Mexican-American, works at the world's slowest pace to become a lawyer.

The white guys who drive the car in the area next to them are something else. Jerome Winkleman lives alone in a crummy apartment with a stunning view of an asphalt parking lot. Eldon (Chow-Chow) Kaprow is cordially detested by his wife and kids. His life has gone down the drain. He's a walking grenade. An atrocity waiting to happen. He's also blond, and very good looking.

Joe Ben steals the van and is murdered in cold blood by Eldon Kaprow. The other three officers cover for him. After a few months of stunned grief, Ben Strother, Joe Ben's father, begins to think about the case. It's not that his son didn't grow up with guns--the family keeps a loaded gun always in the house--but where did Joe Ben get that gun, and why wasn't it loaded? Why was his son shot from behind?

A Human Wet Mop

There is one witness to this crime, a black Mexican cab driver who looks--by his own admission--like a human wet mop. Who is the grand jury to believe, a black Mexican cabbie and a "white-trash" dad, or four spit-and-polish policemen who tell the same story?

The legal system does crank along, however slowly. About the same time that Joe Ben's mother shoots herself, having come to the belief that the devil rules, the federal civil rights people begin to look into the case. It's unfortunate that the person in charge is a woman, and that the prosecuting attorney is another Mexican whose grooming is not impeccable. Even with that, the trial, which commences about two years after the murder, "succeeds" to the extent that the four policemen are convicted of conspiracy, fired from the force and put on probation. Again, the fact that Kaprow is blond and well pressed has kept him out of jail. But Joe Ben's father has lost his whole life. And he works in a store where guns are a staple commodity. And Houston is the murder capital of the world. That other system of "justice" is ready at hand.

Is this a melting-pot novel, an anti-gun tract, a "Rashomon" story of differing points of view, or something of all three? Since it's published by a university press, "Rats Alley" may be a little hard to find, but for thoughtful readers interested in any of these issues, it's certainly worth seeking out.

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