Never before had Daniel Bergner seen a spectacle as bizarre as the one he had come to watch that Sunday in October. Murderers, rapists, and armed robbers were competing in the annual rodeo at Angola, the grim maximum-security penitentiary in Louisiana. The convicts, sentenced to life without parole, were thrown, trampled, and gored by bucking bulls and broncos before thousands of cheering spectators. But amid the brutality of this gladiatorial spectacle Bergner caught surprising glimpses of exaltation, hints of triumphant skill.
The incongruity of seeing hope where one would expect only hopelessness, self-control in men who were there because they'd had none, sparked an urgent quest in him. Having gained unlimited and unmonitored access, Bergner spent an unflinching year inside the harsh world of Angola. He forged relationships with seven prisoners who left an indelible impression on him. There's Johnny Brooks, seemingly a latter-day Stepin Fetchit, who, while washing the warden's car, longs to be a cowboy and to marry a woman he meets on the rodeo grounds. Then there's Danny Fabre, locked up for viciously beating a woman to death, now struggling to bring his reading skills up to a sixth-grade level. And Terry Hawkins, haunted nightly by the ghost of his victim, a ghost he tries in vain to exorcise in a prison church that echoes with the cries of convicts talking in tongues.
Looming front and center is Warden Burl Cain, the larger-than-life ruler of Angola who quotes both Jesus and Attila the Hun, declares himself a prophet, and declaims that redemption is possible for even the most depraved criminal. Cain welcomes Bergner in, and so begins a journey that takes the author deep into a forgotten world and forces him to question his most closely held beliefs. The climax of his story is as unexpected as it is wrenching.
Rendered in luminous prose, God of the Rodeo is an exploration of the human spirit, yielding in the process a searing portrait of a place that will be impossible to forget and a group of men, guilty of unimaginable crimes, desperately seeking a moment of grace.
From the Hardcover edition.
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|Title of eBook: God of the Rodeo|
|Release Date: 02-09-2011|
|Allowed Countries (hover)|
|Publisher: Random House Publishing Group|
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God of the Rodeo
When he had finished work--building fence or penning cattle or castrating bull calves with a knife supplied by his boss on the prison farm--Johnny Brooks lingered in the saddle shed. The small cinder-block building is near the heart of Angola, Louisiana's maximum-security state penitentiary. Alone there, Brooks placed his saddle on a wooden rack in the middle of the room, leapt into it, and imagined himself riding in the inmate rodeo coming up in October. He prepared himself. The afternoon he first showed me what he did, the shed's corrugated metal door was half shut. The air in the unlit room had a dusky, textured quality, almost like the weave of a fabric. He floated on it, the fabric. To vault himself into the saddle, which rested at chest height, he did not use a stirrup. Nor, it seemed, did he bend his knees. He merely flicked his ankles to rise well above the leather, and for an instant he was frozen there, suspended above it, legs spread in perfect symmetry and spine impeccably upright.
That morning, in early September, I had watched him train a colt in a tight, fenced ring. Brooks stood at the center and taught the young quarter horse to cut, to switch directions fast, on command, so that eventually it could work the cattle. "Get around there," he demanded. "Get around; get around." And warned, "Better behave yourself." The colt kept half an eye on Brooks always. Brooks's voice was quiet, but the horse had no desire to feel the whip he carried. And though floggings were a thing long past at Angola, Brooks maintained his own sidelong glance on his boss, one of the freemen who ran the range crew, leaning against the fence. The sleeves of Brooks's T-shirt loo...