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Building a Prison in Oregon : BROKEN GROUND by John Keeble (Harper & Row: $17.95; 336 pp.)

December 20, 1987|Don G. Campbell | Campbell is a Times staff writer and the author of four books.

Some men will undertake an unpleasant job strictly for the monetary reward . . . or for the heady sense of power that accompanies it . . . or for the love of a woman . . . or whatever. The rationales are endless.

Any job counselor worth his salt would give even lower expectations of success to a man taking on a task simply to fulfill a commitment that his father made. A father with whom he was never very close in the first place, and who is now a helpless stroke victim. But that, and the economic pinch that his father's incapacity has inflicted on his stepmother, is the basis for the uneasy alliance between Vietnam veteran Hank Lafleur and his father's loutish partner in the construction business, Ned Blaylock.

This is the springboard for "Broken Ground." Novelist John Keeble, in his latest exploration of the lore and mysticism of the contemporary Northwest, hurls his hapless protagonist into the wilds of the high desert of eastern Oregon to oversee the construction of a new state-of-the-art penal facility--a gloomy enough project under the best of circumstances and made even more so by the bleakness of the topography and the skin-crawling properties of the contractors with whom Lafleur must work.

Even for a less vulnerable man, the eeriness of the project in which he finds himself engaged would be unsettling. But for a sensitive one like Lafleur, still mending from Vietnam, a separation from his wife and family, and the drowning death of a daughter? We're talking psychiatric double jeopardy. Particularly unsettling to Lafleur is the knowledge that this isn't just any federal prison construction project, but one that has been farmed out to a conglomerate, International Data, which specializes in such joyless work and has half a dozen comparable institutions under construction around the world--a sort of Fortune 500 Prisons-R-Us. And, Lafleur feels, a most curious and insensitive way for society to sweep one of its more unpleasant problems under the rug.

But, it's more than just the cold-blooded, flint-eyed corporate types with whom he is working that bothers Lafleur--even as he finds an apparently sympathetic soul mate--and bed mate--in Iris, the project's architect. This, quite clearly, is not your run-of-the-mill, high-tech, prison: What is the purpose of the huge, cavernous pit scheduled for secretion under the prison's Industries Building? Why are there specifications for manacle wall inserts, electrified pallets, cells wired with high voltage, such a proliferation of razor wire on walls not normally requiring it? Why are, well before the prison is completed, batches of prisoners being spirited in, quietly, to take up residence in the cell blocks already finished? Just what sort of prisoners (if that's really what they are) or secretive training missions is this strangely equipped prison being built to service? And who is behind the hulking, professional hit man who has been imported, not once but twice, to dispatch Hank Lafleur? The second time in a grim desert duel between the two, with a deadly rattlesnake emerging as the weapon of choice.

Novelist Keeble, who gained high marks for "Yellowfish," his earlier study of illegal Chinese immigrants in the Northwest, does an excellent job of painting corporate and personal greeds in conflict against the brooding background of a harsh land. But, in some respects, mood fares better than plot as Keeble leaves more questions unanswered than answered, as some characters drawn with great care are simply shunted off not to be heard from again, and as some motivations--including many of the protagonist's--remain maddeningly fuzzy.

But Keeble is a lyrical writer, and "Broken Ground" raises disturbing questions in this "let's-farm-out-the-dirty-work" society of ours.

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