Jody Weiner, Prisoners of Truth
(San Francisco: Council Oak Books, 2012)
Jody Weiner’s Prisoners of Truth follows a pattern found in much American writing and, perhaps even more, in classical Hollywood cinema. Two men were childhood friends or were close in college; circumstances separated them, and, then, decades later, they meet again. Each has taken a different path, possibly one’s a cop; one’s a crook. How will they react to each other? It’s a workable formula that, if handled well, as Weiner manifestly does, can yield insights into both human psychology and our culture.
Ollie Katz, the narrator, is a writer who has never achieved any significant success in his craft so supports himself as a part time bartender and cab driver. His best friend in college was Lucien Echo, who, over the years, has achieved prominence as a hot-shot trial lawyer, though, now and then, he has been questioned about the company he keeps, that is, the rich criminals whose cases he handles. The two seldom meet until Lucien finds himself in really hot water when the investigation of a corrupt, bribe-taking judge implicates Lucian in a payoff. Knowing Ollie’s skill as a publicist and relying on their old school ties to ensure his friend’s loyalty, Lucien summons Ollie to write articles, and eventually a tell-all, ghosted autobiography, to tell the lawyer’s side of the story.
But things start off on a rather odd footing in that, when Ollie arrives at Lucien’s luxurious apartment on Chicago’s Gold Coast, he is greeted by the lawyer’s girlfriend Alex Carlton, who says Lucien is going to be late. Suddenly, there is cross-cutting pressure on Ollie, who, while wanting to help his friend, though he remains skeptical of some of his claims of complete innocence, feels inexorably attracted to his friend’s soul mate. This is not a pressure that lets up for, as it plays out, the more Ollie finds out that Lucien is, indeed, corrupt and perhaps ready for a fall, the more he justifies his underhanded romancing of Alex. As he sees it, once Lucien’s true colors appear — colors which Ollie is increasingly tempted to make clear by letting the authorities know what he is finding out about his erstwhile pal – then Alex will break off her love affair, shocked by her boyfriend’s crookedness. And Ollie can rationalize his betrayal by bringing in the whole right and wrong angle. Lucien did game the criminal justice system in a way that hurt others and let miscreants stay out of jail. So, isn’t Ollie compelled to set things right?
This would seem to be a straightforward enough plot, but, in fact, it zigzags back in time in order to recapture the two men’s time together at school during the protest-laden 1960s at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where they both participated in protest marches, Ollie in the back, Lucien leading the parade. Then, in another flashback to a more recent period, after a chance encounter in a club where Ollie was bartending, readers find the writer relieved Lucien of another of his girlfriends, this time, however, after Lucien and her had already broken up. On top of that, there’s a second zag in that, as Ollie is working with Lucien on his case, the narrator is also writing a novel about a dying doctor, whom, either magically or because his meds are making him hallucinate, is able to time travel back to events in his life where he did the wrong thing. In the story, from which we read excerpts, the doctor now has a chance to correct them
Marshalling all these narrative streams takes a firm hand, which Weiner displays, but even so, with so many detours, it might seem Prisoners would lose a lot of momentum when it takes a byway. In order to escape that contingency, Weiner employs a writing style that compels the reader to take notice. This involves, for one, the author’s ability to engage the reader quickly in each strand of the plot. For instance, after a few pages into the college reminiscence, the reader is really wondering if Ollie will land a date for his frat house’s Hawaiian night, given that he can’t get the young beauty both he and Lucien have been courting, or rather, the more dynamic Lucien is romancing her while Ollie is mooning over her from afar.
A second attribute of the author’s manner that keeps you reading is a bravura style that is filled with wit, insight and observation. Note, for example, the humor in this passage. Ollie and Lucien are conning over the old argument about how men are from Mars, women from Venus.
“Place any woman in a new relationship,” Lucien goes on. “Within ninety days she’ll shift gears along the exclusive road to marriage. The ‘L’ word come up, or three months, whichever comes first. But the fun is over and the ‘C’ word surfaces, which inevitably turns into the ‘M’ word.”
I picked that passage because it takes up a common topic, then expresses it innovatively.
Not all of Weiner’s topics are so typical, such as the bizarre double bind that Ollie is in for most of the book. He keeps thinking, “I want to save my friend from jail and steal his true love.”
Overall, then, this narrative, which displays a thorough knowledge of how a corrupt judge would act – Weiner is a lawyer, after all – turns on a fascinating dilemma, involving three believable, but larger-than-life characters, who grow more entangled and more dangerous to each other until the culminating decision. That’s when Ollie must figures out whether, when the chips are all down, he will be imprisoned by or escape from the moment of truth.