Review: Vengeance

Like author Zachary Lazar, the unnamed journalist narrator in Vengeance is introduced to the Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola when he goes to watch the inmates rehearse and produce the passion play The Life of Jesus Christ. During his time at this former slave plantation, now a maximum-security prison, he befriends Kendrick King, a young man serving a life sentence for a murder he claims he did not commit.

The journalist's interest in King's case leads him to investigate the crime and King's life. He interviews members of the young man's family, reads news stories and pores over case reports. When the narrator first meets King, the inmate tries to explain that in court, despite telling the truth to the jury, his case was confusing. "But if you weren't involved, it's not confusing, it's simple," replies the narrator. "There's nothing simple in the legal system. You know that. Especially not when you're a young man who looked like I did," King points out. That complexity becomes evident the more the narrator learns and the more the case perplexes him, offering possible scenario after possible scenario, but rarely any definitive answers.

Lazar (I Pity the Poor Immigrant) blurs the lines of reality and imagination in this captivating, provocative novel that reads like nonfiction. The stark depiction of Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, strikes the reader with such force, the sting leaves an emotional mark: "It was as if all the importance in the world had coalesced in those fields--violence, punishment, collision, consequence--all that significance beyond the limits of my small understanding." The solid realism of life in Angola is juxtaposed with the narrator's vaporous theories about King's case and the often distorted ideas of retribution, justice, penance.

The black-and-white of good and bad, right and wrong, meet head-on, and a muddy gray oozes out. The narrator, whose father was killed by a contract killer, then realizes: "I believe that something could have been done to prevent it, I don't believe that anything could have been done to rectify it. It was beyond rectifying."

Vengeance is profound in its exploration of the U.S. penal system. It's empathetic without being sentimental in the treatment of its characters, both in and outside the walls of the prison. Lazar's novel is a beautiful specimen of storytelling while simultaneously challenging its audience to reach deep and question the very core of their beliefs.

Lazar delivers his tale with language that mirrors the dichotomy of his themes. He can be flowingly poetic or brutally blunt. But he's always effective. Settle in and prepare to be changed by this powerful novel. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Shelf Talker: A journalist becomes wrapped up in the life of an inmate at Angola Penitentiary, finding parallels with his father's murder and questions about the realities of justice.

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