“A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out…And if someone did remember [certain people]…that person’s account would make them less real, because my memory of them would have to be corrected by facts, which are never considerate of what makes an impression…”
The Mars Room takes you into a world that most of us cannot even imagine. The world of prisons, the world of conflicting perspectives, and most unbearably, the world of hopelessness and isolation. And the actual facts trivialize the impression.
The novel begins on a prison bus where a group of women prisoners are being moved from a jail to a prison. The storyteller is Romy Leslie Hall, who is serving two consecutive life sentences plus six months for murder and child endangerment (the child was present at the time of the murder). Romy is telling her story to the reader.
Romy was a lap dancer at the Mars Room in San Francisco. Kurt Kennedy, one of her regulars, was obsessed with Romy and followed her throughout the city, sat outside her apartment and was a card carrying stalker. He was also a war veteran and disabled. Romy left San Francisco, with her son Jackson, to get away from Kennedy, and moved to Los Angeles. When Kennedy showed up at her home in LA it was more than she could take and she beat him to death with a tire iron.
Romy’s perspective: “Kennedy had fixated. He had made it his life’s work to be outside my apartment building. To be in the garage where I parked my car. To lurk in the cramped aisles of my corner market. To follow me on foot and on his motorcycle…He had a habit of calling me thirty times in a row. I changed my number. He got the new number….But the prosecutor convinced the judge that the victim’s behavior was irrelevant.”
One of the brilliant aspects of The Mars Room is that while Kushner indulges the prisoner’s story she also flips and lets the victim describe his or her perspective. Needless to say, Kennedy’s perspective is not at all that of a stalker and his shock at being beaten is sympathetic. “One night Kurt Kennedy followed [Romy] as she left The Mars Room. He wasn’t any kind of creep. He was just so attached to her that he needed to be sure she was getting home safe…Boy did he miss her. He really missed her. He tried to tell her. All he could do was keep trying.”
Romy talks about her life, including her early sexual and drug experiences, describing a background that is only imaginable in nightmares. She makes friends in prison and we learn about some other prisoners. She thinks constantly about her son, Jackson.
One of the more interesting characters is Betty LaFrance, a wealthy former leg model on death row for hiring a variety of hit men to kill a variety of people. Her last hit man and romantic relationship was a dirty cop, known as Doc. He tells his story too.
In addition to the prisoner’s stories is the story of Gordon Hauser. Gordon was teaching literature in a woman’s prison when he acquired an unhealthy infatuation with an inmate who accused him of inappropriate behavior. He was then moved to Stanville Woman’s Correctional Facility, “where no one but no one wanted to work.” This is the facility where Romy and Betty are incarcerated.
Stanville Woman’s Correctional Facility is in the middle of nowhere. Gordon rents an isolated cabin in the woods that is close to the facility. In part as a joke, his best friend gave him a Ted Kuczynski reader. Portions of the manifesto are interspersed throughout the novel.
The novel is compelling in its description of prison life and the desperation, mental illness and violence in people’s lives (the things that most of us do not experience), that lead to crime and incarceration. Kushner’s writing takes the reader right into the heart of the hopelessness and isolation that the characters are experiencing. The book is a great read but don’t expect a happy ending. You can reserve The Mars Room at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.