“The Suburban Inmate:” Substance over Style

Whether you enjoy Allan Thorn’s self-published book, The Suburban Inmate: A Man’s Guide to Surviving Prison, may depend to some degree on whether or not you’re actually a suburban man heading to prison. The closer you are to facing the situations Thorn describes, the less likely you may be to quibble about his writing style.

My initial impression – being a woman who is not heading to prison – and also used to more formal writing – inevitably had more to do with stylistic issues than with the content of the book. “I really wish he’d use fewer exclamation marks…and he does tend to ramble off-topic now and then, doesn’t he?”

It’s true that the exclamation marks are a bit overdone; I’m not sure anyone really! exclaims! that! much! in normal conversation. Even though Thorn warns prospective inmates that they should get used to yelling (since there’s a lot of that in prison), one would assume that he doesn’t really want to be yelling at his readers.

The occasional off-topic ramble makes a couple of chapters into a more stream-of-consciousness read, which can be entertaining but also a bit distracting. When he returns to the subject, you find yourself thinking, “Oh right, we were talking about that, weren’t we?” And the extensive digression about the lack of proper sex education in schools, and the Catholic church’s problems with celibacy and sex, completely interrupted the flow and didn’t have much to do with the actual intent of the book. Those are valid issues, and whole books could be written about them – just not this book.

So in the beginning, I wasn’t that impressed. But in the end, The Suburban Inmate really does grow on you, as you get to know and like several of Thorn’s fellow prisoners. And there’s a lot of useful information packed into such a small volume, like what sorts of bartering you can do with food items, how to be on good terms with your case manager so you can get a better job while inside, and even the attitudes and lingo to adopt so you don’t appear weak (and therefore, project yourself as “easy prey”).

Nor does Thorn shy away from addressing issues about sex between inmates. He’s as honest as possible about what a person can expect to face while behind bars. And he has a lot to teach about actually turning the prison experience into something almost pleasant, to help you grow and become a better person. If a reader takes away nothing else, Thorn’s optimistic belief that everyone deserves forgiveness and can be (or become) a good person is extremely valuable for someone facing prison.

Which is why my own stylistic issues with the book may not be all that important, after all. Thorn writes to a very specific demographic, and few men on the verge of prison are going to read this book and think, “I’m not crazy about all those exclamation marks.” He’s not giving a speech to a business conference, he’s talking like a buddy, the way he’d talk in real life – exclamations and digressions and all. Most of all, he’s providing reassurance that his readers can survive the prison experience, and furthermore, is offering tips on how to do exactly that.

So while some people (raises hand) may have trouble with the writing style, a young man about to go to prison may devour every word of this book and not care a fig about the style. He’s just looking for a life preserver, and The Suburban Inmate may be just that.

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