True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile HallTrue Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

i’ve liked Salzman’s work since Iron and Silk–he knows just where to put the entrance ramp to this new society he’s going to introduce you, he chooses just the right details, knows how to toss a few balls in the air and keep them all up there until the right moment to let them down.

he’s an excellent craftsman.

in this book, he tells the story of a year of volunteer writing instruction at the local juvenile hall. the individual kids’ stories are crushingly sad, of course–sort of an endless river of abuse, neglect, cruelty, and coercion–but Salzman doesn’t really dwell on that. he shows us the boys (and they are boys, even if they’re in there for murder) as they reveal themselves to him.

he makes great use of their own writing to do so. there are endless excerpts and presumably whole pieces written by the boys reproduced here. the language is, in its way, breathtaking, and the honesty surprising. there’s more real feeling in half a dozen rough paragraphs than can probably be found in a semester’s crop from Iowa.

i like Salzman’s attitude toward his volunteer work, too. he’s not trying to save anybody here. he’s not got out a flaming torch of justice. he says he just wants to have fun. and you know, i think that attitude really works. it’s hard to get disillusioned or embittered when all you set out to do is have some fun. Salzman stuck with this volunteering twice a week for a year (or at least that’s what’s apparent from the text), so it must have worked.

it’s an odd slice of life this book covers, and it won’t be for everyone, but if you’re curious about where art and crime and punishment intersect, this is as good a place to start as any.