Albuquerque Journal North

Friday, October 19, 2001

Former Santa Fean Sheds Light on Prison Life in Novel

"Leaving Disneyland" reveals the struggles of a black prisoner, and the author hopes the story makes readers think

By Michelle Pentz

Santa Fe-raised Alexander Parsons works best in "antagonistic environments."

So it was probably a blessing in disguise when a professor at Wesleyan politely informed him that his aspirations for becomeing a writer just weren't going anywhere. That only fueled this ambitious young writer.

Recently, debut novelist Parsons reaped the satisfaction of mailing his award-winning work of fiction to that pessimistic professor. "Leaving Disneyland" won the AWP/Thomas Dunne Books Award and will be released this month by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press.

"As a writing teacher myself, I've decided the best thing to do is to give students the confidence that they can pursue writing fiction, then let them reach their own determination as to whether they can or can't," said Parsons, 32, talking from his home in Austin.

Critical success

The literary world has certainly determined Parsons has the stuff of a great novelist. Kirkus Review called Parsons' first novel, which offers a gritty look into the struggles of a 55-year-old black convict as he faces parole after thirty years in correctional institutions, "an excellent attempt to portray criminality with the kind of sympathy and understanding that Steinbeck brought to indigence."

Other critics have drawn comparisons to Tom Wolfe, praising Parsons for his vivid portrayal of life behind bars, insightful conclusions and dialogue that hits prison vernacular head-on.

Delighted to be returning to his home turf ("I always hold onto my New Mexico driver's license as long as possible"), Parsons reads from and signs his book tonight at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, then Sunday evening in Albuquerque at Bound To Be Read and in Santa Fe on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Borders Books & Music.

"I always feel uncomfortable when I'm out of the Southwest, as if I am out of place," said Parsons, who plans to set his next books in New Mexico. "There's something about the landscape here that imparts a perspective on our endeavors. There are these truths out there that you're wandering around trying to find."

Parsons said that the Disneyland topic actually found him when he was working as an editor for a business publisher on "mantras for middle management" in Washington, D.C.

"It originally started eight years ago as a grand social criticism of the prison system with all of its flaws, influenced by great books such as '1984' and 'A Brave New World,'" he recalls.

Parsons began pouring over books and videos on incarceration, though he was left feeling the stories they recounted seemed divorced from reality.

He realized a fictional tale was emerging in which he could critically portray a character who had committed atrocious crimes but was, at the same time, sympathetic.

"I felt suddenly these prison issues had a human face, and I knew I had a book to write," Parsons said. "The more you write, the more you see truth resonates outward from individuals."

 

(cont'd)

Life behind bars

Indeed, "Leaving Disneyland" transported Parsons to another world--"dark, heavy, depressing"--especially considering that the writer is, as a friend says, "a young, white yuppie" who graduated from Santa Fe Prep and Wesleyan.

The author modeled his prison after Pete Early's "The Hot House," a nonfictional account of Leavenworth. Taped conversations with an ex-con helped Parsons grasp the rhythms of prison speech. And because 49 percent of American inmates are black in a population that is aging rapidly, Parsons said he wanted his protagonist to reflect that.

"I wrote the book with the idea that maybe things would work out for Doc--and they didn't," said Parsons, who after finishing the novel returned to D.C. to find the real-life ex-con who'd piqued his interest in the topic of prisons. The depressing, albeit not surprising news: the man was back in the penitentiary.

"It's hard to have a happy end when you've got a situation where, say in Texas, 50 percent of prisoners there have already been there before," Parsons said. "And there are a lot of vested interests. The prison market is worth $37 billion a year."

Finding his calling

In his next book, just completed this week, Parsons takes a history-based fictional look at Central New Mexico's ranchers in the 1940s, evicted to make room for the White Sands Missile Range and the detonation of the first atomic bomb--and he follows his calling to adhere to Southwestern subject matter.

Although he was born in London, where his father was attending film school, Parsons' family moved to Taos in 1970 when he was a year old. While he initially wanted to be a documentary filmmaker in the enchanting mountain town, Parsons' father, Jack, became a prominent Southwestern photographer and settled with his family in Santa Fe. Parsons' mother, Becky, worked as a ceramicist, and niether parent wanted their sons Chris and Alex to live the financially insecure life of an artist.

Chris became a Santa Fe stockbroker, while Alex, a compulsive reader, studied literature at Wesleyan and then embarked on a book publishing career at Random House in New York.

"It was not a good fit," he recalled. "And that's when I knew I'd be a writer."

After beginning "Leaving Disneyland," Parsons headed to Santiago, Chile, to write and apply to grad schools: "I thought, if I don't get in I'll stay in South America."

But he did get into school. Parsons attended the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop from 1995 to 1998, where he taught and wrote the bulk of his first novel.

Soon after, Parsons returned to New Mexico, where he taught and earned a master's at New Mexico State--whose writing program Parsons praises highly. He also found his mentor, professor Robert Boswell, who, Parsons said, helped him grow and approach a narrative through its individuals. The author still sends all his writing to Boswell for input.

"I don't think I'm a naturally talented writer," Parsons said. "Success at writing depends on how much mental punishment you can take, and I'm very stubborn."

Isolation and agonizing self-scrutiny join forces as the foes of Parsons' solitary vocation, but he enjoys the immense rewards that come from tackling a task so difficult. 

     

The Austin Chronicle

October 12, 2001

Unchained Melody

Austinite Alexander Parsons' First Novel Escapes Into Prison

By Shawn Badgley

He's sitting outside a South Austin coffeehouse on a breezy Sunday evening, raving about camel sightings in the American Southwest and ranting about the American prison system in general. He's within whispering distance of the police station at Fifth and Oltorf, but Alexander Parsons isn't whispering. He isn't yelling, either. Yet I'm still afraid he'll be plucked from the table at any moment, carried off by one of the cops coming in and out of the Diamond Shamrock adjacent to the station.

I'm not sure why I feel this way. He's a white male wearing glasses and a Wesleyan fleece, after all, well-spoken, drinking ice water and eating some kind of chocolate cake. But he's talking about camels. Bad government. Jefferson Davis. Militiamen in New Mexico. And then there's his first novel. Leaving Disneyland (Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95) is everything its title implies: fleeting and joyless, its onslaught of broke-down characters ricocheting off of each other, disappearing into the dark heat of Nevada or the stormy violence of Washington, D.C. It begins in the fictional Tyburn State Penitentiary's Cellblock B with Doc Kane, an old-school con awaiting parole. He has served 16 years of a 20-year sentence for killing his daughter's abusive husband.

"I got respect," Doc lectures his new cellmate, a 21-year-old serving life without parole, early in Leaving Disneyland. "Spend thirty years fighting for who you is and not getting beat and you get that. But you -- you a mark and fellas is gonna move on you. Come into Bone Hill and you got to know who you is. Got to have certainty of who you is and what you stand for. I'm Doc. No sucker, no punk, no weakling. And if you here to fuck up my shit you best think twice."

 

(cont'd)

A man of uncompromising pride and a moral code fueled by a superiority complex and comic books, Doc doesn't like prison. Doesn't like the system's skewed sense of rehabilitation. Parsons, who has lived in Austin for a year after graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a stint at New Mexico State's creative writing program, doesn't either.

"I guess what I was hoping was less to say, 'This is what we need to do,' because it's more complex than that, but to say, 'Here is a man guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted, but what does that mean, what should we do with him?'" Parsons explains. "He's still a member of our society -- he's a fellow human -- and if you can see him with some compassion, then maybe you can start to think of some of the other people who are in jail with some compassion, and if you do that, and if you're interested in them, it's more likely that we can we reach consensus on a more beneficial system. I guess I started with this high idea -- 'Yeah, social criticism!' -- and then I realized more and more that the story was about a guy and that I should stick with that."

That guy is black. Most of Parsons' characters are. Many are criminals. Where does a thirtysomething white man in a white man's world, a guy blessed with more privilege than all of his characters combined, get off? And, more importantly, how did he pull it off?

"I like reading books that take me to a different place, and I'll probably stick with these departures that are intensely research-based," says Parsons, whose second novel, El Malpaís, is about a New Mexico ranching family who lost their land to the federal government during WWII trying to take it back 40 years later. "Good fiction should often elicit a sense of disquiet," he smiles. "It means you've broken out of a set way of looking at something. Real art uses the reader's desire for comfort in a subversive way."