Review: Harms’ Way by Thomas Rayfiel

Harms' Way

Thomas Rayfiel

October 10, 2018

Harms’ Way by Thomas Rayfiel takes us into the world of a super-max detention facility, painting a dark depiction of prisoners and prison life where despite the presence of America’s most psychotic killers, we find ourselves comfortably at home.

This lyrical, almost hallucinatory look inside the mind of a serial killer is both beautiful and disturbing. Ethan Harms is an inmate in a super-max prison, where the worst of the worst are incarcerated for the rest of their natural lives. Life is no picnic in the penitentiary, as Ethan attempts to safely navigate both the decrepit conditions and his murderous cohabitants, as well as staff members whose aims are often in direct opposition to his own. In just one example, they want him to take medications—some more experimental than others—something Ethan opposes not for their effect on his impulses but for their effect on his mind. When he can’t think clearly, he can’t minister to his fellow inmates, a purpose that gives his otherwise bleak life meaning.

The arrival of Littlejohn, a young man so beautiful his victims allowed him to seal their mouths with Superglue before killing them, sets into motion a chain of events that propels Ethan into greater action than he’s been capable of in years. While waiting for his turn at the shower, Ethan notices physical signs of abuse on Littlejohn’s body, prompting the older man to proffer help, even if only, at first, in the form of bearing witness and providing emotional support:

“Someone’s hurting you.”

His back is turned. I sense words enter him better that way, as he is departing, when he is no longer putting on a show of bravado.

“You may think it’s necessary but it’s not. There’s a way out of these relationships, even here. I can help.”

He shows no sign of slowing down.

“I can minister to your soul.”

The words sound foolish as they leave my mouth. That, too, I take as a positive sign. Attempted good deeds should make us feel uncomfortable, should be hard, otherwise they would be commonplace occurrences, which they are most assuredly not.

Ethan’s struggle to become a better human being is often subsumed in his struggle just to survive, not only physically but as his own spiritual person. He knows that what he did on the outside was wrong—he knows that he deserves to be in prison—but the sheer inhumanity of his surroundings, while doing a pretty good job of obliterating what he used to be, gives him little foundation for building something worthwhile going forward. As he gets sucked deeper into prison intrigue, pulled on different sides by conflicting loyalties and, above all, the instinct for self-preservation, he finds himself in danger of losing his identity. Paradoxically, though, he realizes that this is not entirely to his detriment:

I do not know who I am anymore. When I arrived, I had a very strong sense of self, but the borders have blurred. Perhaps, as [my neighbor] hinted, it is compensation for my physical world being so circumscribed. If I am penned in by walls, counts, and curfews, my spirit takes up the slack, roams where flesh and blood cannot. Molecules of awareness waft out through the bars and mingle with those of others. There is a vast cloud of frustration choking the hallways, the maze-like ceilings, all the interstices of this unwieldy man-made organism. It is not, however, some mystical union with the Godhead. What I feel is the rage of a million pent-up desires. My skin crawls with sins festering inside a multitude of living corpses. We are bad, singly and collectively, yet all that perversity, that darkness, squeezed together, communing, has a warmth to it. Whether I like it or not, these men are my brothers.

Harms’ Way is a seductive, almost lulling slide into the mind of a man capable of both great and terrible things. It’s a puzzle box of a book that is at once elegant and disturbing, especially once you get to the denouement and all the pieces fall into place. Thomas Rayfiel has written a compelling character study that is unafraid to indict a correctional system that not only fails to offer any attempt at rehabilitation but is all too open to corruption and further violence. It’s probably one of the best fictional depictions both of criminal insanity and American prison life that I’ve ever encountered and just a terrific read overall.

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