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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Characters Motivated by Love in Gory Prison Thriller : GREEN RIVER RISING by Tim Willocks , William Morrow & Co. Inc., $23, 352 pages

January 10, 1995|CHARLES BOWDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Green River Rising" is a love story that involves mass rape, sexual mutilations, drunken binges, lots of dope, 32 murders and, when the passion finally cools, leaves 348 people in the hospital. It works as a thriller (the pages turn easily) and is the first book by a quirky young writer named Tim Willocks, who writes far better than anyone has a right to expect.

It begins the day Ray Klein, a doctor sent up on phony rape charges, has been granted parole. He becomes our guide through the jungle of the Green River prison. Klein merely has to overcome one small hurdle in order to be freed the following day: He must survive an epic prison riot.

The technical boss of this joint is warden John Campbell Hobbes, a philosopher king (he's hooked on utilitarian Jeremy Bentham) who is seeking a rough kind of therapy for a bad day he experienced some years earlier when convicts tied him to the bars of a cell, covered him with excrement and did God only knows what with him. He speaks with a biblical voice and says things to the inmates like "Your true function, if you would know it, is to provide a caste of subhuman scum whom society can despise and fear and hate. Listen to me. Listen!"

In fact the whole novel rolls along with a language that echoes the Old Testament from its opening line: "Imagine darkness, if you will, and in that darkness bars of steel encrusted with the rust and filth of ages."

The narrative's purpose is simple: How do good people survive a prison riot engineered and run by evil people, psychopaths and full-blown lunatics? Mainly by acts of love.

Klein falls in love with a visiting psychiatrist, Dr. Juliette Devlin. Nev Agry, the block boss who ignites the riot, is in love with Claudine, a former pimp. Reuben Wilson, the leader of the black cons, is in love with the idea of redeeming his men's sense of self. Henry Abbot, a giant who has murdered his family with a ball peen hammer, is in love with God. Frogman Coley, an innocent man and a former sharecropper who has been locked up for about a quarter of a century, is in love with healing people in the prison infirmary he runs. And of course Warden Hobbes is in love with the idea of true punishment and absolute loss. He, like many of the key characters, lives in a world of interior monologues:

"Hobbes has come to understand that he too had been a slave to his own miserable vanity and grandiosity. The fantasy that he could make a difference alone was nothing more than a flight from true redemption, a wretched craving for the empty plaudits of those he most despised. He would throw away everything he had in a delirium of liberation. He would turn away from the lethargic suicide upon which he had long ago embarked. Instead he would embrace his destiny, and the destiny of all men, in the glory of irredeemable loss."

What makes the book work is not the philosophy but the endless action and frequent dollops of gore. In "Green River Rising," doing time is a damn busy activity. Klein's Odyssey through the riot entails killing, wading through a river of sewage that makes the River Styx look like a trout stream, and periodic martial arts explosions.

Since it is a thriller, it would be unfair to disclose a lot details about the plot. Suffice it to say there is not a single loose end dangling when this tale comes to its conclusion. And it really is a love story, one that throbs with genuine human affection.

The loose cannon Nev Agry is willing to turn the entire place into a tomb for love. Ray Klein is willing to crawl through an ocean of raw sewage for love. Frogman Coley fights a war for love when he refuses to let the enraged inmates kill the AIDS patients entrusted to his care. Tim Willocks is going to be fun to have around. He can write and actually has something to say. As he notes at the beginning of the novel, "Breathe this infernal air. Taste it." I recommend you do so. A quick stretch in the joint can be bracing.

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