Vengeance, Zachary Lazar’s fourth novel, begins with a narrator (unnamed throughout the novel, but undeniably Zachary Lazar) visiting the notorious Angola prison (population 6,400 mostly black inmates) in Louisiana with his photographer friend Deborah to cover the prison’s all-inmate “passion play” about the crucifixion of Jesus.
Deborah is clearly Deborah Luster, to whom the book is dedicated and whose photographs of places where people were murdered are included in the book. The two did in fact spend a week covering the passion play at Angola; Luster photographed the prisoners in their costumes for an exhibition and Lazar wrote a non-fiction account for Brick magazine.
But, after this introduction the novel takes a very subtle turn. It still has the feel of a “true life” (or perhaps “true crime”) non-fiction account but the main characters and actions are invented. The narrator meets a charismatic 31-year-old black prisoner, Kendrick King, serving a life sentence in Angola (where “a life sentence literally means life. There’s almost no parole.”) for a crime he may or may not have committed ten years earlier.
The narrator becomes obsessed with the story King tells him about his arrest for a bad drug deal that ended in a murder and about his being interrogated for 10 hours with no food before agreeing to give the detectives the fabricated confession they wanted.
The narrator, sometimes accompanied by Deborah, listens to the police tapes and views the crime scene photos, visits King’s mother, daughter, ex-girlfriend and others in order to sort out his feelings for King’s guilt or innocence.
Lazar has previously written an engrossing memoir, Evening’s Empire, about the gangland murder of his father when he was a child and how it shaped the rest of his life. Two of his novels involve real life characters in fictional settings — The Rolling Stones and underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger in Sway, set in the 1960s counterculture, and Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky in I Pity the Poor Immigrant. In Vengeance he does the opposite, he drops a fictional character into a mainly true story.
Lazar uses this “autofiction” blurring technique to explore questions of narrative reliability and the reliability of memory. He augments the story of the narrator’s search for the truth behind King’s involvement in the murder with fictional transcripts of King’s police interviews, newspaper clippings on the case and “novelistic” recreations of the crime, sometimes seen from King’s perspective, sometimes not, sometimes showing King as innocent, sometimes not.
In the end any interpretation is up for grabs. King’s taped confession sounds genuine to Deborah but to the narrator it could be an act to get himself out of the room and away from the detectives’ relentless questioning.
The narrator imagines King’s confused thinking during the interrogation: “[A]fter a while it becomes hard to remember what they know and what they’ve just imagined about him, what he knows about himself and what he’s just imagined. The longer he sits there, the more he begins to imagine himself as a twenty-one-year-old like all the other twenty-one-year-old-black males…”
Similarly, the narrator hears conflicting versions of the events and doesn’t know who to trust. King withholds some details from the narrator in their talks and letters and the narrator also hides from King some of the things that he has learned on his own.
The novel, of necessity, also has a political undertone to it. The narrator is aware of being “what in this time and place is called white” and that ultimately he can’t know what it is like to be a black man in Louisiana liable to be caught up in the vortex of the mass incarceration complex at any time.
(This is the third novel I’ve read recently about the racist judicial system in Louisiana, after Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, but the first one by a white author.)
Vengeance is endlessly intriguing and I found it difficult at times to remember that King and his family and associates were fictional creations, so real do they become in the context of the novel.
In one haunting passage the narrator meets a black rabbi with a storefront temple in a small town in Georgia and the narrator talks to him about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.”
The narrator says, “In the Jewish mystical tradition, the ten vessels that contained the emanation of God’s light, the sephirot, could not withstand the pressure and exploded. . . . Our task on earth, according to this myth, was to repair the shattered vessels, the shattered world, which meant first of all that we had to pay careful attention to it.”
Vengeance is a wise and sad novel that we all should pay careful attention to.
Vengeance by Zachary Lazar, Catapult, 272pp.