Never before had Daniel Bergner seen a spectacle as bizarre as the one he had come to watch that Sunday in October. Murderers, rapists, and armed robbers were competing in the annual rodeo at Angola, the grim maximum-security penitentiary in Louisiana. The convicts, sentenced to life without parole, were thrown, trampled, and gored by bucking bulls and broncos before thousands of cheering spectators. But amid the brutality of this gladiatorial spectacle, Bergner caught surprising glimpses of exaltation, hints of triumphant skill.
The incongruity of seeing hope where one would expect only hopelessness, self-control in men who were there because they'd had none, sparked an urgent quest in him. Having gained unlimited and unmonitored access, Bergner spent an unflinching year inside the harsh world of Angola. He forged relationships with seven prisoners who left an indelible impression on him. There's Johnny Brooks, seemingly a latter-day Stepin Fetchit, who, while washing the warden's car, longs to be a cowboy and to marry a woman he meets on the rodeo grounds. Then there's Danny Fabre, locked up for viciously beating a woman to death, now struggling to bring his reading skills up to a sixth-grade level. And Terry Hawkins, haunted nightly by the ghost of his victim, a ghost he tries in vain to exorcise in a prison church that echoes with the cries of convicts talking in tongues.
Looming front and center is warden Burl Cain, the larger-than-life ruler of Angola who quotes both Jesus and Attila the Hun, declares himself a prophet, and declaims that redemption is possible for even the most depraved criminal. Cain welcomes Bergner in, and so begins a journey that takes the author deep into a forgotten world and forces him to question his most closely held beliefs. The climax of his story is as unexpected as it is wrenching.
Rendered in luminous prose, God of the Rodeo is an exploration of the human spirit, yielding in the process a searing portrait of a place that will be impossible to forget and a group of men, guilty of unimaginable crimes, desperately seeking a moment of grace.
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
"Chilling and heartbreaking…A vivid, ambitious, and ferociously reported book that reads like a novel . . . Even people who know something about prison rodeos will find it hard not to be caught up in the richly etched lives he discovers behind the ghoulish pageantry…Bergner's rich, probing and compassionate book is a rare look at both the physical and spiritual world on the other side of the bars…An eloquent and valuable book."
—New York Times Book Review
"Sure to become a classic in the field of prison literature."
"Very powerful and beautifully written…The autumn rodeo was the catalyst for this book, but it is not the focus. The rodeo is a symbol of hope for these men, and if not hope, a way to mark time and a break in their dreadful routine. Bergner does the near impossible: He creates empathy for the prisoners yet never allows the reader to lose sight of the reasons for their incarceration. Some people should not live in society, but we can't turn our backs on their innate—if deeply flawed—humanity."
—Booklist (starred review)
"Difficult to shake from your mind…Bergner's brilliance lies in making us understand what seems at first unambiguously self-destructive, futile, and ugly. He makes the rodeo a window into the foreignness of prison life, and it's the long year between rodeos that makes the book…We come to understand that like the convicted men, the warden is not an easy man to judge—and that's one of the triumphs of Bergner's unwavering eye and his compassionate, well-paced storytelling…What is most compelling about Bergner's book, however, is that it lacks any agenda save the search for something human in the piss and misery of the concrete cells. He succeeds. As long as that is possible, we are not entirely inhuman."
"Bergner's gift is for understanding both his subjects and his readers—for getting into the former's heads and putting the latter inside the prison, so they know and maybe even like those who have committed unspeakable crimes…Bergner neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes these men, neither judges nor approves; he just paints them as they are and in so doing delivers an astonishing lesson in sympathy."
"A story of such eloquence and brutality that, from time to time, I simply had to put the book down and think about what I'd just read. Magnificent!"
—Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm
"A fascinating descent into the hell of one of America's most notorious prisons, God of the Rodeo offers a surprising and humane portrait of the men trapped in a horror beyond imagining."
—John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
"For most of us the story ends when a defendant is sentenced to prison. But as Daniel Bergner demonstrates so compellingly prison itself may be the most astonishing story of all. A horrific, macabre—yet strangely ennobling—tale of life on the other side."
"Bergner's prose is powerful, at once journalistic and personal. He romanticizes neither the prisoners nor their keepers."
—San Diego Union-Tribune
"Compelling…A harrowing yet humane book."
—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"One of the most fascinating books published in years."
"Bergner does the near impossible: He creates empathy for the prisoners yet never allows the reader to lose sight of the reasons for their incarceration. Some people should not live in society, but we can't turn our back on their innate—if deeply flawed—humanity. A very powerful and beautifully written book."