God of the Rodeo
By Daniel Bergner
New York: Crown, 1998, $24.

reviewed by Michelle Huneven

May/June 1999

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In fall 1996, New York journalist Daniel Bergner went to Louisiana’s remote Angola prison farm to research a feature article about its famous inmate rodeo, “The Wildest Show in the South.” Intrigued by the event and its inmate cowboys, Bergner kept returning for a year. The resulting book, God of the Rodeo, tells stories of the rodeo, of those inmates Bergner came to know and, ironically, his even more chilling encounters with Angola’s powerful warden.

For 30 odd years now, on every Sunday in October, Angola convicts have competed in events from bull-riding to “convict poker” (where four convicts sit around a card table as a bull is loosed nearby; the last man still seated wins $100) and “Guts & Glory” (in which a poker chip is plucked from between a bull’s horns, again for a $100 prize). Participants are thoroughly inexperienced—indeed, inmates are forbidden to practice rodeo skills—so that broken bones are common, and serious injuries not infrequent. The rodeo is borderline, if not downright, gladiatorial. Yet the inmates volunteer, even clamor to enter, unable to resist the chance to win and to interact with free people. The rodeo “brings the public here,” says an editor of the Angolite, the prison newspaper. “They lay eyes on us.”

But Bergner is intrigued not only by the rodeo but by Warden Burl Cain and his claim that Angola, under his administration, is “a positive prison,” where inmates, even death-row inmates, can become better people. Bergner hoped to witness such redemption, to locate an inextinguishable spark of goodness among society’s discards. “Ridiculous as it may sound,” he writes, “I sensed that at the prison I might find affirmation for my own tenuous faith in God.”

Bergner soon decides to write a book on the prison and gets free run of the place and permission to speak in private with inmates. The lives of half a dozen of these men generate much of the narrative in his book.

There’s Johnny Brooks, sentenced to life for beating a woman to death 22 years before. He works as a cowboy on the prison’s range crew and secretly practices bull-riding. In the course of the book, Brooks will meet, court, and marry.

Terry Hawkins is another lifer: when asked to work late, he took a meat axe to his boss who, until that moment, he’d pretty much liked. Watching the man gasping through his severed windpipe, Harris thought, “How did all of a sudden this happen?” Bergner’s strong writing fully invokes the horror and frightening possibility of that moment.

There’s also Littell Harris, who after serving 15 years, most of it in the cell blocks for acting out, is released and tries to make a life outside.

And then there’s Warden Cain himself, a self-proclaimed humanitarian and deeply religious man, who claims that it’s his job to bring out the good in his charges. Thus, the prison offers inmates a literacy program, a CPR teaching team, a Toastmasters group, a productive toy shop, and other opportunities for self-improvement. 

By January, however, Cain asks for editorial control of Bergner’s prospective book, and, soon after that, he demands money from the journalist. When Bergner refuses, Cain has him escorted off the prison grounds. In a scary and courageous move, Bergner files a suit to regain access to the prison, and Cain backs down. “I figure we just got involved in a little game of poker,” Cain says to Bergner. “But instead of just going on playing, you stood up and shot me.”

The contretemps actually works in Bergner’s favor, convincing the prisoners (and staff) that Bergner isn’t a spy for Cain, a suspicion some had harbored, as it turns out. They become more forthright in voicing their opinions, and Bergner soon learns that the programs Cain takes credit for were the legacy of the previous warden. Cain is responsible only for an expansion of Angola’s shoe shining detail and for replacing the prison farm’s field trucks with horsedrawn wagons, giving the grounds the unmistakable look of a pre-Civil War plantation. 

The book’s second half moves away from the rodeo itself, to focus on the inmates’ stories, deploying a third person point of view that goes so far inside the different inmates’ minds (and outside the writer’s direct observation) that the writing becomes speculative, even silly—e.g., “She looped his arms around his neck. She wore loose, billowy pants . . . . There was, between her pressed-together breasts, a line for his tongue to follow.” Bergner is a fine reporter, but as his writing crosses the line from hard journalism into so-called creative nonfiction, the book loses its muscle and its steam.

Yet there’s a satisfying ending: a wedding for Johnny Brooks, a job for Littell Harris, a victory of sorts for Warden Cain, who despite an inquiry triggered by Bergner’s feature article on the rodeo, retains his position at Angola.

Did Bergner find redemption? Was his tenuous faith in God affirmed? It’s hard to say. Some innocence was lost, some self-knowledge gained, and humanity, if not divinity, was certainly sighted in every player. 

Michelle Huneven wrote the novel Round Rock (Knopf, 1997).  She belongs to Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, CA.

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