As Houston's fortunes ebb and flow with the oil industry, Huntsville depends on bad boys. The social, economic and employment structures of the city are so closely tied with the state prison system that it's a town where crime literally pays. Former Texas Monthly and current GQ writer Robert Draper visited there often on assignment, and it inspired the setting of his debut novel, Hadrian's Walls (Knopf).
"The precarious ethics of that town have always fascinated me, how there's death constantly in the air, yet people go on about their daily business," says Draper. "And you have even grandmothers speaking in the quasi-military prison language. But the town is recession-proof. As long as we have criminals, we'll need the prison industry of Huntsville."
Hadrian's Walls chronicles the tumultuous lifelong friendship of Hadrian Coleman and Sonny Hope in the fictional East Texas prison town of Shepardsville. As a teenager, Hadrian kills a powerful, pedophilic judge to save Sonny and goes to prison for the crime. Over the years, Sonny becomes director of the state penitentiary while Hadrian becomes its famous -- and only -- escapee. When Sonny convinces the governor to offer a pardon (yep, this must be fiction), Hadrian returns to Shepardsville after years on the lam, only to find out that his freedom has strings attached.
This is no traditional prison novel; only a minute portion of the action actually takes place behind steel bars. "I had no interest in the gritty, grimy, heavy-on-the-sodomy stuff," Draper notes. "I was more interested in the dynamics that lie on the fault line of innocence and guilt, freedom and confinement." Thus, the conflicted protagonists: a decent man obsessed with his guilt and a not-so-nice guy who insists on his innocence.
Milling in the background are a cast of characters that include an ex-con turned religious real estate developer, a muckraking reporter for a certain real-life Houston daily newspaper and a gorgeous woman who's married to Sonny but loves Hadrian. Through all of the stories runs a generational thread with lots of flashbacks, as each character is either hindered or emboldened by the acts of his parents and grandparents. (Draper himself knows a bit about this: He's the grandson of Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski.)
"In that sense, I think the book is very Texas and Deep South," Draper says. "As the tale grew, I found that it was restrictive and false to lock these characters in their own generation. I found my pen going backwards as much as forwards."
Hadrian's Walls represents a hard-earned triumph for Draper, whose previous attempts at publishing novels were unsuccessful. "In truth, all I've ever wanted to write was fiction," he says, adding that his next book will take place in Houston and Italy, and follows an underachieving young criminal defense attorney who spends a lot of time at the Harris County Courthouse.
"Houston is a city that's vastly overlooked as a place of great fictive possibilities," Draper says. "There's enough material there to write a lot of novels."
-- Bob Ruggiero
Robert Draper will sign Hadrian's Walls and give a talk on Wednesday, May 19, at 5:30 p.m. at Murder By The Book, 2342 Bissonnet. Call (713)524-8597 for more information. Free