Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“The purpose of this book is to view the remarkable role that the Aryan Brotherhood has played in the largest and most densely populated prison system in the history of humanity—the penal system of America,” and to this end ex-con Brook draws on acquaintances from inside, original interviews, previous journalism, medical reports, and court transcripts, and, in one case, handwritten trial notes from a juror, all in order to build a book about an organization that privileges secrecy, a Brand run by a mythical trio of celebrity prisoners who consider themselves mystical warriors and are undisputed masterminds of entrepreneurial crime. Murder and meth manufacture, arms sale and drug distribution, assorted acts or torture and the occasional prison shanking all pepper a narrative centered mainly on the men known as the Baron and the Hulk and Terrible Tom, larger than life characters living in a world that is a warped mirror of the one outside those thick prison walls. “Contemporary civilized society saw them as psychotic sociopaths, brutal killers, who had nothing to do and nowhere to go,” but Brook presents them as fascinating folks, more so because of their context, their ability to thrive inside places designed to break down and oppress and, from within these isolated places, control vast enterprises across the country. Coming back to a phrase he uses again and again, Brook writes that these men “engaged in mystical warfare, abolishing disorder and establishing order out of the chaos of the jungle.”
Brook does not present himself as a true believer, but, more importantly, he complicates what being a true believer might even mean. He calls the AB “Recycled Nazis,” and speaks of their “malevolent, mystical symbols” and how their authority is based “on violence, terror and blood,” but at the same time Brook contrasts the beliefs of rank-and-file AB members with the idiosyncratic life philosophies of these three leaders. Brook admires, it seems, the way the Baron—Barry Miles—bases his worldview on a mix of Dale Carnegie and Machiavelli, how he teaches himself psychic travel via a prison library paperback, how he crafts elaborate codes for covert letters, and how his strokes of criminal genius are aided by the meditative technique of, yes, knitting.
Knitting relaxed him and allowed him to think about things at a subconscious level. When the Baron knitted, he was like a cow chewing its cud—an automatic and organic digestion process that took place without conscious effort. Only in the Baron’s case, he wasn’t digesting food, he was processing information.
Brook is awed by the size of this man’s character, but he’s less than awed by—and less than interested in—the worldviews normally associated with the AB, white supremacy and Christian Identity, ideologies rooted in race. Here’s a book with a swastika on the cover, dealing with a group that refer to murders of non-whites as “NHI” crimes, meaning “No Humans Involved,” and Brook presents racism as a tangential aspect, even explicitly as a distraction (“these ‘racial purist’ members lost sight of the criminal goals of power, domination and profit. They were disorganized, undisciplined, hysterical, ignorant simpletons,” he writes).
I have to wonder if idolization of the main characters of this story doesn’t lead to some vigorous denial about this racist aspect. Or, to phrase it another way, if white supremacist ideology is as tangential and distracting to the Aryan Brotherhood organization as Brook presents it as being, what the hell is that about, how did it come to be, and what is the “A” in “AB” all about anyway? One of these top three guys is, notably, Jewish, or at least ethnically Jewish, though we don’t hear more than that about it or get any sense for what it might mean for a man to have a swastika tattooed on one arm and a Star of David tattooed on the other. But Brook is taking risks with this research, and, in his defense, he’s got a blockbuster story here, and one that, while it skirts the racist issue, doesn’t ignore the level of sadistic violence involved with this organization and its criminal work. In one scene, a man is forced to swallow shattered glass, then tortured at length with an industrial staple gun, an electric prod, and a propane torch. By members of the organization Brook has set out to write a book about; members of an organization that don’t like having stories told about them.
So he tells the story carefully, in some ways. And he tells it rollicking. Here’s a description of some pretty horrific stuff, to give a sense of Brook’s tone, which I imagine will be appreciated by AB members who read this book, and which won’t let any other readers slip to sleep:
...farmers were the primary source of anhydrous ammonia, which was vital to the production of crank. The farmers would either get greedy, demanding more money, or they got afraid and wanted out. Either way, Wolfman sent Nazi Low Riders to perform what Wolfman called ‘attitude adjustments.’ The threat of violence was usually more than enough to remind the rebellious farmers that to get along they needed to go along. A bunch of tattooed, hairless, steroid-abusing Nazi gorillas riding Harley Davidsons and packing Mac-10s would arrive at the slacker’s farmhouse in the middle of the night and drag the farmer out of bed for a pep rally. After the importance of fellowship and brotherhood had been explained, the farmer invariably had a religious experience. He repented and promised to sin no more.
Also central to the book is the unlikely crossing-of-paths between a chemical engineering student at Cal Tech and members of the AB. This kid, not native to America, speaks, shall we say, oddly. Upon first introducing himself to a table of skinheads at a bar, he proclaims, “It has been fascinating to speak with you. I look forward auspiciously to our next conversation and to associating with you.” Then he goes on to revolutionize meth production for the AB. The Baron, meanwhile, takes “long soul-walks,” visiting the cells of his fellow prisoners using his psychic powers. And he knits. And he plots. He arranges to buy a bank, and in one lengthy and painstakingly coded letter he announces “The Aryan Brotherhood was going into the arms business. Nazi Low Riders and associates should join the US Army, specifying their desired military occupational specialty as Quartermaster Corps. Once in, they were to steal weapons and ammunition, funneling the stolen material to a central location” from which they could be easily sold to Mexican drug cartels.
Scary stuff, but fascinating, and while it raises far more questions than it attempts to answer in its limited scope, Blood In, Blood Out is far superior to any of the many History Channel or National Geographic specials on the topic. This is a good read.
Official John Lee Brook Web Site
Official Headpress Web Site