Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Prentis Rollins

Prentis Rollins has over twenty-five years of experience working as a writer and artist in the comics industry.

His debut full-length graphic novel is The Furnace.

Recently I asked Rollins about what he was reading. His reply:
I recently, finally, read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I say ‘finally’ because it’s a classic of American literature, very often required reading in high school—but it’s one of those books that if you don’t read it then, likely as not you never will.

But I did, and I’m glad. Sinclair spent seven weeks working in Packingtown (the gigantic stock yard/meat processing and packaging facility) in Chicago in 1904 as research for the novel. The experiences of many of the immigrant workers he met there are telescoped into his protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, who has newly arrived with his family from Lithuania. Through Jurgis’ eyes we witness the appalling ordeal these immigrants endured—the relentlessly long hours working in shockingly unsanitary conditions, the low wages (kept low by the ever-growing surplus of men and women clamoring for work), the ubiquity of predatory conmen and political bosses, the miserably shabby housing, and the poisonous food (Jurgis has no idea that the milk his infant son drinks is watered-down and doctored with formaldehyde).

The book is a portrait of a living hell-on-earth. In its wake domestic and international sales of American beef and pork declined by 50% (if Sinclair is right, men who fell into the mixing vats simply became part of the sausage—not to mention the rats that fell in, and the meat tainted with cholera). The book also led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. A blistering, nauseating read about capitalism at its very worst and man’s inhumanity to man, told in terse, to-the-point prose, and ending with a ringing call for revolutionary socialism.

From one Sinclair to another—I recently re-read Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. This much-neglected classic from 1922 is (as far as I’m concerned) suddenly and strangely relevant. Lewis had a love/hate relationship with America—the hate side predominates here (for the love side, check out Dodsworth). George F. Babbitt, real-estate salesman, comfortably married, father of three, Rotary Club member, Sunday-go-to-church Christian, Republican who wants a ‘business’ president, is the perfect epitome of smug, complacent, myopic, ‘respectable’, hypocritical, racist and sexist American conformist mediocrity. He is so perfectly average, in every conceivable respect, that you can only call him excellent at it. He begins to suspect that his existence is a hollow lie (he doesn’t have the vocabulary to formulate it like that to himself, but he knows something is badly off-kilter), and he fecklessly attempts in one way and then another to burst the tiny confines of his life. This book is incredibly funny, and sad, and a true eye-opener about how little some aspects of the peculiarly American character have changed over 100 years. You may not like George Babbitt, but you might just find yourself (swear to God!) rooting for him.

One of my very favorite films is Cool Hand Luke—for years I didn’t even know it was based on a novel of that name by one Donn Pearce. It is—it was Pearce’s first novel, published in 1965 (he wrote several others, but is mainly remembered for this one). It bears comparison to The Jungle inasmuch as Pearce spent time in a Florida chain-gang prison (his ‘research’), and, though it is fiction, it can be viewed as an expose’ of the harsh life these convicts endured.

Lloyd Jackson—who acquires the prison moniker ‘Cool Hand Luke’—is 28, a heavily-decorated WW2 hero, rootless—a perfect embodiment of the sort of anomie and resentment examined in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. He ends up in a chain-gang road prison in sweltering Florida. His crime? Cutting the heads off of parking meters with stolen plumbers’ tools during a drunken spree.

The book is told by another prisoner as a series of flashbacks, in which we see Jackson’s gradual acquisition of almost mythical, Christ-like status through his stunts in the prison (he eats 50 boiled eggs in one hour on a bet, a scene brilliantly recreated in the Paul Newman film), and his doomed multiple escape attempts (he is beaten and worked almost to death in the wake of these attempts, also recreated on screen). He becomes a sort of second Christ for his surviving prison ‘family’-members—the myth of Luke becomes part of the oral history they pass on to each other in order to survive. What we get in the book that’s not in the film is a much fuller picture of Jackson’s backstory, and his inner life—his perplexity at and hatred of American hypocrisy (a man commits multiple murder overseas during war and is dubbed a ‘hero’; at home he commits petty vandalism and is slapped in prison—WTF?!)

The prose is desultory, conversational, laced with prison slang, occasionally soaringly poetic—it put me in mind of the voice that would later be adopted by Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club. A profoundly beautiful, thought-provoking book.
Visit Prentis Rollins's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Furnace.

The Page 69 Test: The Furnace.

--Marshal Zeringue