Redemption in a Cellblock

By William Roberson
Thomas Rayfiel Luke Stettner

“Harms’ Way”
Thomas Rayfiel
The Permanent Press, $29.95

In “Harms’ Way,” an accomplished and disturbing new novel by Thomas Rayfiel, we are presented with a harrowing multilayered story that succeeds on each of its levels. At its most fundamental it is a prison novel, a bleak and brutal account of the isolated life within a maximum-security prison and the dehumanizing effects of incarceration on all those involved — guards, administrators, and prisoners alike. 

That depiction is provided through the testimony of Ethan Harms, who is imprisoned for a series of horrific murders of women. Harms struggles to understand and come to grips with who and what he is. He seeks “ways to affirm my existence.” The novel is Ethan’s story as told by him as he reflects on what he has done and his understanding of “his punishment for being human.” Evolving from these efforts and dominating the novel’s other layers is a philosophical story concerned with the human condition itself.

All of this is deftly handled and intertwined by Mr. Rayfiel through a series of relationships and encounters that Ethan has with other inmates, prison administrators and guards, as well as Roberta Bush, a doctoral student interviewing prisoners for a study on “aspects of the pathological mind.” She promises to help Ethan achieve mindfulness in exchange for his confronting what he did to his victims for her study. 

Ethan’s thoughts also center on the lonely childhood he sought to escape and his relationship with his alcoholic single mother. She was largely responsible for his early, distorted view of women and the nature of “romantic adventures.” Ethan has not heard from her since his incarceration, and his attempt to discover her present whereabouts is a principal concern of his. Ethan’s remembrances of childhood include his connection to Father Bryan, a priest who befriended but then abused him. Father Bryan sponsored Ethan’s first killing spree, paying him $10 for every mole he killed and disposed of from the church cemetery.

Many of Ethan’s reflections originate from his dealings with those immediately around him. His closest relationship is with Raymond Cooney, a fellow serial murderer who occupies the cell across from his. Cooney is a successful prison author, even though he can barely read, as Ethan wryly notes. He published a best-selling book about his crimes in which he explores “the dark side of the American soul.” Cooney filed a lawsuit against the warden and the prison, and the warden manipulates Ethan into an act of betrayal against Cooney that has consequences for everyone involved. 

Ethan often sits quietly beside Crow, a Native American, in the prison yard. Crow has killed another prisoner by turning his head 180 degrees. He has also sworn a vow of silence. Eventually, Ethan believes he can share conversations with Crow “on a psychic wavelength.” 

Littlejohn, a new inmate, is being regularly and systematically beaten. Ethan tries to intervene and help him. He says he has a calling to rescue his fellow prisoners, “to transform myself into a shining beacon” for their benefit. This is his perceived means of a hoped-for redemption for his crimes and a passage to the world beyond. 

With his body confined in prison, Ethan revels in the only freedom available to him, that of his mind. He believes that it is only when the body is trapped that “real thinking starts.” Being imprisoned, he is gaining “a compensatory wisdom” and is beginning to see the world as he hasn’t previously. His ultimate goal is to acquire a reflective understanding of not only himself but of the human condition. 

But what does the existence of prisoners like him imply about the human condition? If one does monstrous things, does that make one a monster or is that simply who we are? Are people like Ethan reminders of our true selves? 

He observes that “to be is to be guilty” and that “no one wants to hear how normal you are, how much you are like them.” In prison, society is stripped of delusion. The cover is torn away from the perversions and brutality that lurk beneath the surface beyond the prison walls. 

“Of course, what we are left with — ourselves, our histories, the holes where our souls should be — is grim, but has a reality almost never encountered on the outside.” 

Ethan’s testimony of his struggle to gain knowledge and find truth is undercut, however, by the uncertainty of what he believes he observes and experiences. Subject to mania for which he is being medicated, he is now secretly avoiding taking his medication (or at least he believes he is). He also admits to hallucinations following his solitary confinement in the “rubber room.”

The question of his reliability as a narrator introduces another layer in the struggle to see the truth and to move from darkness to light, not only for Ethan but for the reader as well. Things may not always be what they seem within Ethan’s “tortured mental maneuvers.” As he observes at one point, “I am obscuring rather than revealing.” 

In the end, Ethan realizes that it is “better to save yourself,” and he does achieve a final deliverance from the waste of mankind into light and a sense of self-awareness. His doing so provides an unexpected and chilling conclusion to Mr. Rayfiel’s fine and thought-provoking novel.

Thomas Rayfiel’s other novels include, most recently, “In Pinelight.” He was a summertime resident of Amagansett for many years and remains a visitor.

William Roberson taught literature at Southampton College for 30 years. He is the author of “Peter Matthiessen: An Annotated Bibliography” and “Walter M. Miller, Jr.: A Reference Guide to His Fiction and His Life.”