And you thought California was one of the progressive states.
Arnie knows his only solution to living a long and healthy life is to get the hell out of San Quentin. That means an escape. But escaping San Quentin is practically impossible the way the prison is now set up. His cell mate Al gives him a long lecture on all the ways inmates have tried and failed: disguised as a priest; hiding in abandoned areas of the yard; even foolishly sneaking into a scrap metal truck, and making the fatal mistake of hiding in a heap of junk that became a death trap. You name it, it's been done, Al tells Arnie. What a prisoner needs to do is think of something impossible like maybe escaping from San Quentin vertically - a helicopter, maybe. But as far as hiding long term or trying to walk out in disguise -- forget it. All those variations are known and escape is easily thwarted by the prison staff these days. They'll find you and then you're in for good.
|UK 1st edition, the only hardcover version|
Added to the complications is the fact that Ben and Ruth, passing themselves off as a happily married couple in suburbia, have made the mistake of moving into a house right next door to Mr. Nova. Nova is a repellent, slovenly, very nosy neighbor who goes out of his way to tell Ben he knows him from his frequent visits to San Quentin, And how does Mr. Nova know that? Well, he's a guard there. Oops. "Of all the joints in all the San Francisco suburbs he walks into mine" to paraphrase Rick Blaine. Nova becomes Ben's adversary in more ways than one throughout this often tense story.
While reading of Ben and Arnie's elaborate plan the reader also learns about 1950s era prison life, surprisingly tame compared to 21st century prisons. Fights break out, that's for sure, but there's hardly any mention of male-on-male sex, the strange protection relationships that develop, or the smuggling of goods in and out of prison. The world of Oz, the TV show that revealed prisons in all their seediness, is several decades off in the future so don't expect too much gritty realism in this depiction of the prison world. Finney apparently did his research by interviewing Warden Harley Teets (to whom he dedicates the book) and making a few visits to the building, but was only willing to go so far in describing the ugly, lonely life of prisoners in the "pastel colored" walls of the modernized San Quentin. He captures the mood and feel of the isolation and claustrophobia, but I know it had to be nastier than the relatively sane, polite, and clean world he describes.
My only criticism of this book is Finney's ill timed brotherly feud in the final pages. Ben decides to announce he and Ruth are in love at the most inopportune moment in the book. It's beyond awkward -- it's just eyeball rollingly stupid. The two brothers behave like high school kids fighting over their girl while Ruth stands by futilely crying out to them to stop their verbal and physical fighting. All this in the presence of a hostage they have been forced to hold temporarily. It nearly ruined a fast paced, suspenseful story for me.
|Jack Palance & Barbara Lang in the 1957 fillm|
The House of Numbers was also filmed and released a few months after the book was published. In the movie version Ben and Arnie are look-a-like brothers (not twins) making the cell switcheroo more believable. In the dual role of Ben/Arnie is young Jack Palance, just making his way into the tough guy movie roles that would make him famous. The movie has never been released on DVD though it was shown on the big screen during the Noir City Film Festival in 2011.