Inmates on Dostoevsky

He gets up abruptly from the desk he’s been leaning on and lumbers over. “All right,” he says. “Let me have one of those Pall Malls.” I offer the whole pack. He takes three, puts one behind each ear, lights the other, and French-inhales the smoke in a way I haven’t seen for twenty years. “The first thing to understand about an execution,” he says, “is that it’s a ritual. You’ve heard that before, but probably only as a truism. There’s nothing cliché about an execution. It is a modern religious ritual, sanctified in the sense that everything represents something else. The executioner’s fee is the eye for the eye. The sacrifice is implicit in the fact that only one out of every hundred or so gets killed. The blood atonement is what the prisoner’s last meal symbolizes. Notice how the exact menu always gets in the newspaper story? That’s just some AP asshole, acting out a ritual he doesn’t even know is a ritual. He’s covering a communion.”

Dennis is a middle-class northerner, a black sheep who at the age of nineteen killed a man accidentally while sowing wild oats in a barnstorming through the South in the late 1950s. He wound up in Angola and lost his eye in a knife fight in which he killed an inmate, for which he received a death sentence. Like Rideau, who taught himself to read on the row, Dennis spent the 1960s reading everything from the New Republic to Dostoevsky. Everyone in this office has read Dostoevsky, in fact, and to a man they are convinced that he murdered someone during his youth. No one, they say, could have understood the psyche of a murderer that well without having tasted blood himself.

Solotaroff, Ivan. The Last Face You’ll Ever See