Friday, March 20, 2015

The Word Man of Alcatraz

Prison novels occupy a special corner in the realm of fiction. The confined setting, hothouse atmosphere, sadomasochistic underpinnings and homoerotic intimacy are hallmarks of the genre. We read these novels to delve deeper into the exotic, sometimes mysterious, culture of the penal system, but also to stare wide-eyed, perhaps with a sense of schadenfreude, into a terrifying world of brutal violence and closely guarded secrets where primitive passions rule. Certain works, such as John Cheever’s Falconer, Patricia Highsmith’s The Glass Cell, and Chester Himes’s Cast the First Stone, are literary classics.
One of the most unusual of these novels is Behind These Walls by Christopher Teale. Published first in hardcover in 1957 by Frederick Fell, Inc, in New York, it became a runaway bestseller in 1962 when Pyramid put out a pulp paperback version. But until now its pseudonymous author has remained unknown. Through some literary sleuthing, I have been able to uncover his true identity.
“Christopher Teale” opens his tale in the “tank,” or holding pen, in an unnamed town, on the mainland, a few miles away from a large island prison. The exact location of the penitentiary is never given, but its description is clearly similar to Alcatraz in San Francisco. A ferry is needed to get to the prison, and escapes from the rocky, desolate pile are treacherous and most often fatal.

At the outset, the narrator, an “in-again, out-again” convict, back after having been paroled for six weeks, is handcuffed to a nervous young man, only sixteen, known as the “Bicycle Murderer” because he stabbed his girlfriend to death with a pocketknife after a seemingly innocent bike ride and picnic. The boy is handsome with fine features and a shock of red hair. He is immediately nicknamed “Red,” although we later find out his real name is Wilbur. The con cuffed to him is older, lanky, with dark black hair, a full five-o’clock shadow, and a cocky reputation as a tough guy. He is called only “Tex,” although we later learn his real name is Francis.

From their very first encounter, Teale focuses entirely on these two men and the intricate way in which the older man inserts himself into the life of the boy, creating a protective shield around him. “When they brought me from the tank to the attorney room, he was standing there, handcuffs dangling from one wrist,” he writes. “Meeting the kid-killer face-to-face aroused my curiosity.”

But Red’s appeal is also unsettling: “As I looked him over from head to toe, I would not have traded the years of prison behind me for all of his glowing youth.” And yet… the prisoner, “slender and small of stature… high school in appearance,” with “red hair, combed back” that “strained to curl” and “startling blue eyes,” mesmerizes him. “I caught myself thinking that of all the beautiful boys I’d seen in my time, none could compare with this clear-eyed youth.”

The jailer, a 246-pound “son-of-a-bitch,” notices Red’s assets too. He “looked the boy over, making an obvious point of staring at particular parts of his anatomy.” Tex wonders nervously about the boy’s future behind bars. “I knew he’d cause a sensation behind the walls. There were plenty of young guys there, but youth alone doesn’t offer the attraction of youth plus beauty.” Should he warn the kid to be careful? To literally watch his ass? No. He decides it’s better not to get involved, to let the chips fall as they may. “Hell,” he says, rationalizing his hands-off attitude, “I’d never heard of anyone dying from prison sex.”

Nevertheless Tex decides to become the boy’s mentor, a jaded guardian angel. But this angel has had its wings clipped too many times and also has a chip on its shoulder. He’s edgy and anxious around the boy, and flares up at the slightest bit of attention from any of the other inmates to his friend, such as the tailor who gives the boy a new suit, or the muscular dentist, known as a “feeler.” We’re told several times that Tex is not a “jocker,” cons who preys on “punks,” those that use them for sexual gratification. But as the story unfolds, we’re given glimpses into Tex’s troubled psyche, and his profound feelings for the boy that go well beyond mere avuncular interest.

After Red naively asks Tex why every time he takes a shower, the men come running down to watch, Tex rolls his eyes and explains sarcastically that “They run down there to case that pretty ass of yours or that thing hanging between your legs, Red.” They’re after “Sex with a capital S.” Red stares back wide-eyed and asks “You mean they want to punk me?” Tex is shocked by the boy’s ignorance, but also moved by it. He lets his hair down a bit, joking with Red that “if I ever decided to become a jocker, I’d want someone just like you, Red.” The confession unnerves them both. “I hardly realized what I was saying,” Tex admits, “but I’d said it.” Red responds sarcastically, “Yeah, Tex, and if I ever wanted to be punked, I’d want someone just like you to punk me.” The boy storms off.

Teale’s purpose here is not simply to titillate. He’s exposing, in small snippets of conversation, how the game inside prison is played, and how perilous it can be for a young man, only sixteen, in the company of wolves.

Shortly afterward, Tex is lying in bed at night in his dimly-lit cell. “I stared at my nakedness. Almost 6 feet tall, my hard, lithe body denied my middle years. Any kid would have been happy to have the muscles in the calves of my legs, and the knots of my stomach muscles were like those of a professional strong man.” He continues in this vein, giving a flattering inventory of his physical attributes, focusing on himself in a masturbatory litany. He’s imagining Red’s approval of his physique. Then the mood shifts. “I speculated, idly, how my body would appear in a morgue.” Sex and death are intricately entwined in Tex’s mind, a subtle bit of foreshadowing on Teale’s part that pays off in the end.

Tex’s interest in the boy generates a buzz among the other prisoners. It looks like Tex has finally fallen for someone. He denies this to his friend Clyde, a heavy-set, clownish convict who is constantly jumping into the sack with his playmates, including a “simpering bimbo” Tex finds in bed with him when he walks into Clyde’s lavish quarters above the print shop. Tex disdains their behavior and the “cold cream smell” and “something else” in the air, but he seems to enjoy their camp humor. He is also surprisingly friendly with the she-males who also populate the prison, fabulous creatures with names like “Madam Titanic,” Boots Mallory,” “Madge,” and “Georgia Mae,” who once played professional baseball. “Ramona” is one of Clyde’s favorites, a very pretty 22-year-old prostitute who fooled most of her clients into believing she was female, until he was entrapped by a young policeman.

Later in the book there’s a description of the “Jockers Ball,” “the queens’ biggest day,” in which several of the more effeminate convicts dress up as women in full drag, dancing with their partners, including two men who had fought heroically in World War II. Tex clearly relishes the parade before him, eyeing several of the more muscular men. But he’s keeping tabs on his new friend, too. “The whistles directed at Red would have brought blushes to Monroe herself.”

Behind These Walls is subtitled “An Unusual Novel about Prison Life” — and it is, indeed, all that. It is unusual because it is unabashedly frank about homosexual desire, with a surprisingly open-minded attitude about gay life (especially considering that this was written in the very-conservative ’50s).

While most traditional prison novels paint homosexuality in prison as a perversion caused by the absence of women, Behind These Walls accepts it as an intrinsic part of prison life, or more precisely, life among men. Teale never questions it, or ridicules it. Nor does he pass judgment on it. And rather than beat around the bush with coy euphemisms or elaborate set-ups, Teale dives right in, depicting the relationship between these two men in an unabashedly romantic framework. 

But there’s the rub, because this is a love story without any consummation. It’s about desire, a deep-seated yearning, an obsession that dominates the narrator’s life. The sexual tension stems from the frustration Tex feels as he lusts after Red. But he deliberately stays at arms length because he is after something bigger than physical pleasure. There’s never any doubt that it’s a love story, but the closest these two ever get to being sexually intimate is being cuffed together that first day.

It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off. Teale avoids getting preachy or treacly, and manages to bring out layers of affection between the two men without over-playing his hand. One of the best scenes occurs in a garden inside the prison where the two men go to talk. Red confesses to Tex why he killed his girlfriend. The language is simple and direct, without being theatrical or contrived. A tricky subject to pull off, it has the ring of truth, as if Teale were quoting a conversation he’d once actually had.

I’m not sure why Behind These Walls isn’t better known today, or given more respect. While clearly the work of a first-time writer, an amateur really, it has a raw power. At times it has an almost Melville-like aura about it, a kind of incantatory flow that draws one in. In terms of its subject, the love between an older man for a beautiful boy, it calls to mind Billy Budd.

Teale’s prose is far from polished, and there are occasional gaps in structure. But I only noticed one misuse of language (censor, instead of censure). It’s an intelligently conceived, well-thought-out novel, with clever dialogue and a laser-like focus. Some of the thumbnail sketches of characters in prison are remarkably sharp and effective. And Teale deals deftly with the pervasive violence by using language in quick, bold strokes to convey the horror without beating one over the head with it. He undercuts the humor and sentiment with lightning flashes of cruelty.

Even at the climax, in the midst of disaster, when things come to a surprisingly upbeat conclusion, it ends on a bittersweet note. Tex, who is a master at rigging the system and counterfeiting documents, orchestrates Red’s release. Tex writes, “I hadn’t spent 30 years in prison for nothing. I could arrange things… I could cover up.” That seems a perfect metaphor for the entire romance between Tex and the boy. Writing this book, an homage to the youth he lost, both figuratively and literally, helped make up for the time spent wasting away behind those walls. Tex plots his own demise, while helping to provide for the boy’s future. I won’t give away the actual ending except to say that I can’t think of any other romantic novel that has a sadder “happy ending.”

Behind These Walls could be read as a fable. And judging by reviews of the time, the book was received as a work of complete fiction. It seems as if some of the readers didn’t buy the publisher’s statement that the novel was written by an actual convict. Perhaps the book’s reputation has suffered because of that mistaken assumption, that it was written to exploit the genre. 

The pulp version from Pyramid certainly played up that angle. And perhaps it has been dismissed by the mainstream academic establishment because it is too overtly homoerotic and naive, yet ignored by the gay literati because it is not openly queer enough.

Curious to learn more about its author, I decided to investigate who this Christopher Teale really was. Was the name a pseudonym? After considerable digging around, I finally managed to find a copyright notice, revealing that Behind These Walls was actually written by a man named Frank Earl Fleck, a career criminal who had served time in Alcatraz, as well as numerous other penitentiaries. Armed with Christopher Teale’s true name, I was then able to find out the whole story, one that is as fascinating, if not moreso, as the novel. 

The phrase a “life of crime” has become a cliche, but in Frank Earl Fleck’s case it is painfully apt. Fleck was born in Pittsburgh on February 20, 1904, the youngest of four children in a middle-class family. His father, Louis John Fleck, was a pharmacist of German descent. Because of his work, the family moved around a lot. The 1910 Census shows them in Liberty, Texas where Louis was employed as a druggist. In 1920, the Flecks show up in Kansas, but by then Frank was already in trouble with the law. He is not listed at home, but as a resident of the McCune Home for Boys, a reform school.

According to his later prison records, Fleck was involved from the age of 15 in a series of house burglaries, and in one case, arson. He was sentenced to McCune for three months. When he got out, he lived with his parents in Wichita, attending Wichita High School. At some point he enrolled for two years at St. Benedict’s College in Atchison, Kansas, a fact later contradicted by prison records that claimed he had never advanced past seventh grade. But a quick phone call to the college confirmed that he was a former student there. 

In 1922 Fleck was again arrested for house burglary and was sent to the State Reformatory at Boonville, Missouri. But in the latter part of that year, he escaped and rejoined his parents in Liberty. 

In Texas, Fleck hoped to turn over a new leaf, but as he later admitted, he had a penchant for fine clothes and fast cars. Soon he was caught stealing again. In 1923 he was arrested and sentenced to two years confinement in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. He escaped in 1924, but was apprehended and returned the same day. He was discharged in November of that year. In 1926, after driving a stolen vehicle from Dallas to San Diego, he was arrested under the Dyer Act for auto theft and sent to Nevada State Prison for 15 months. In 1927, presumably released early, he was arrested again and sent up to McNeil Island, the penitentiary in Washington State, for three months. 

A year later Fleck was arrested again for carrying a concealed weapon and incarcerated in the State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. He served one year of a two year sentence, only to be re-arrested in California in 1930 for second-degree burglary. This time he got 1-15 years in San Quentin. In 1933, he was transferred to Folsom, and paroled in 1938. He violated parole in the spring of 1939 and was returned to Folsom where he remained until 1943. Less than four months later he was convicted of narcotics possession in Los Angeles where he had robbed a drugstore of $5,000 worth of drugs. He was addicted to morphine, dependant on “Deloided (sic) and Dionin, Opium derivatives,” he stated, using “dope in the amount of four grains per day.” He was sent back to San Quentin for five years, gaining parole two years later. He went back once more to his family in Hillsboro, Texas. That might have been Frank Earl Fleck’s chance to get straight, but a year later he got caught passing fake counterfeit checks. 

While he had been in prison, Fleck had worked as a baker, a linotype operator, and a journeyman printer, and became a master at it. He found employment at the Yarboro-Corridon Printing Company, in Hillsboro, where he would use his key and enter the shop at night. He printed and engraved fraudulent bank money orders, cashiers checks and checks of companies like the St. Louis Bell Telephone, Co. for a total of $4,000. He also created false employee’s identification cards. In August of 1946 he was sentenced to 15 years in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Reading Fleck’s admission summaries gives us insight into who he was as a person, at least medically speaking. His status was given as “An erect white male… general appearance good, nutrition good, muscles firm, skin healthy, weight 151 lbs., height 5- 11 1/2 inches, blood pressure 116/80.” The vision in his “dark, gray eyes” was given as 20/20. He had hernias in 1922 and 1929. His dental report was only grade “C”, but he was shown not to have gonorrhea or syphilis. He had a scar on his left temple from a gunshot wound, and a Kewpie doll tattoo on his lower right arm. His intelligence was listed as “average… possibly better.” An injury to his spinal cord had caused “loss of dexterity, partial, in the right arm, hand and finger.” This may have been due to an accident in the printing plant, which could be a dangerous job. He talks about such dire risks in his novel.

As Fleck would later write in Behind These Walls, he was the type of character who was “queer for prison.” He enjoyed the work in the print shop, and the institutional routine. But he also flourished in the masculine environment, enjoying the male camaraderie. Fleck never married, and was most likely primarily homosexual. 

In February of 1947 Fleck was searched in the Lieutenant’s room at Leavenworth and according to prison records was found to be in possession of two “friendship” letters: “One was written from another convict supposedly to Fleck and the other was written by Fleck in answer,” the report states. “Institutional writing paper was misused. Placed in isolation.” But a side note indicates that the correspondence involved “a young boy,” a fellow prisoner. “There was no proof, however,” the statement adds, “the letter may have been written for homosexual reasons.” Because of his past criminal record, his two escapes and two detainers, Fleck was recommended for transfer to Alcatraz for “closer custody.”

At Alcatraz, Fleck was given the number 776. From its beginning Alcatraz had been used as a facility to treat men guilty of “sodomy.” That is probably why Fleck was transferred there after his liaison with another prisoner in Kansas was uncovered. Or perhaps there is more to the story of his relationship with the “young boy” in question. One can’t help but wonder if that youth was “Red,” the hero of his novel. It would certainly make sense.

I was not able to find out too many details about Fleck’s eight-year stint in Alcatraz. The only record I was given was his transfer paper on which was noted that he was released on January 22, 1956, nine months shy of his minimum expiration date (he had earned 1800 days off for good conduct.) He went back home to Hillsboro, Texas.

Fleck may have started his novel while in Alcatraz. How else could it have been published by Frederick Fell, Inc of New York on August, 26, 1957? It is standard for a novel to take a year to go to press, let alone to write. I suspect Fleck began the manuscript in prison, where he would have had ample time, then finished it when he got home. He dedicates the book to “Clyde,” the gay friend in the book, as well as “Red,” for obvious reasons. But he also dedicates it to someone named Alvin (and notably does not use quotes around that name.) It’s tempting to see this as Alvin Karpis, the longest-serving inmate at Alcatraz who had been part of the infamous Barker gang. Karpis was there at the same time as Fleck, and was known to spend a great deal of time in the library there. It’s possible that he may have encouraged Fleck in his literary pursuits. A cursory look at Alcatraz’s list of inmates includes very few other Alvins, so it’s entirely plausible. 

How Fleck came up with the pseudonym “Christopher Teale” is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was an inside joke. Fleck it turns out was an old hand at making up names. He used various aliases his whole career, presumably to avoid being found out for violating parole. Some of his pseudonyms include “Roy Earl Johnson,” Walter D. Nadel,” “Roy Frank Hines,” and “Frank Martin.” He must have been very good at forging documents, because several of his prison terms were spent under these aliases. He even signed his admission papers with various pseudonyms. 

Judging by his photographs, Fleck maintained as he aged his dark, swarthy complexion and lean physique, as well as his clean-shaven appearance. What we don’t see is any revealing expression in his eyes. He has a seasoned, hardened criminal look, but he also seems sensitive. He is a man at war with himself, battling unspecific inner demons.

Behind These Walls was a sensational debut novel. The paperback was listed as a bestseller for the year 1962, and went into multiple printings. But it’s unknown whether Fleck managed to enjoy his literary success. I’ve not found any evidence that his true identity was revealed to the literary world during the initial hype surrounding its release. And as far as I know no one has ever written about him in the context of the book before, except for a fateful incident in 1963 in Texas. 

For back then it seems, Fleck, even after being published, was unable to control his dark side. He robbed a National Bank of Commerce in Dallas, this time terrorizing customers with a sawed-off shotgun, and ran off with $65,000 in stolen money.

The story dominated the local papers for several days but did not spread nationally. In an article I found from the Abilene Reporter -News, after Fleck was arrested, he admitted to being the author of Behind These Walls. Perhaps he hoped being a published author would help his case. He claimed he had earned over $3,000 in royalties. The reporter seemed incredulous, if not downright hostile. 

According to the news article, Fleck had recently purchased a truck to open an exterminator’s business. He indicated that he was writing a second book, The Valley of Decision. What became of that? Was he merely pulling their leg? There had already been a novel by Marcia Davenport with that title — a sappy romance. And perhaps Fleck was just being facetious, referring to his own life, filled as it was with indecision and wrong turns. We’ll never know.

Fleck was sent to the state prison in Huntsville where he remained the rest of his life. Per his death certificate, he died there from “malignant neoplasm of the liver” on June 6, 1970. He was 66 years old. His body was removed to Houston, and donated to the State Anatomical Board for scientific purposes.

It was a fitting end to a man who spent his entire life in prisons, seeking anonymity via countless aliases, yet who had flirted with death in his novel, in order to give the man he loved a new life.