Guest curating today’s Notable Narrative is Michael Fitzgerald, a business and technology writer and former Nieman Fellow, who chose Andrew Corsello’s “The Wronged Man,” from GQ. Check back tomorrow for Fitzgerald’s conversation with Corsello, in which they talk about story mining, authorial empathy, the writer-editor relationship, and naps. Here is Fitzgerald:
Andrew Corsello’s “The Wronged Man” swept me up and kept me thinking for days. The story, from the November 2004 issue of GQ, is about a poor black man who was wrongly convicted of rape and eventually exonerated by DNA evidence. He was exonerated primarily because a hard-luck white woman fought the legal system’s indifference for more than 20 years.
The story gripped me in part because the two main characters, Calvin Willis and Janet (“Prissy”) Gregory, endure enough suffering and ill fortune to qualify as modern-day Jobs. I found it almost incomprehensible that they could take what life whacked them with and keep going in the way they did. Were they fictional characters, I think I might have thrown the piece down in disgust at the author’s unfairness. I kept reading because Calvin and Janet form a kind of double-helix of hope, carrying us through a dark, dark story. Despite everything that befalls him, Calvin never gives up on himself or his faith, Janet never gives up on him, and they receive redemption.
It’s a powerful story, but what felt compelling to me as a reader was that Calvin somehow became my friend. Most stories I read about people wrongly imprisoned evoke pity, and make me doubt our justice system. This one infuriated me. When Calvin is finally exonerated, it outraged me that the State of Louisiana not only took six months to let him out of prison, but also refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Then comes this quote, from the chief of the sex-crimes unit at the district attorney’s office: “Calvin Willis is not innocent. He’s just not guilty,” adding “There is no reason whatsoever for us to ever say that the legal system made a mistake.” I wanted to hit him in the face (and I haven’t thrown a punch since middle school). I was even a little angry at Corsello for failing to note that somebody should punch the guy in the face.
So, what got me so attached to Calvin? I’m not friends with garbage men in real life. I grew up with people who had lives similar to Calvin’s, and we’re at best Facebook friends now. I think Corsello, a National Magazine Award winner and five-time finalist, drew me in by making me intimate with him, and by very quickly giving me facts that let me decide on my own that Calvin shouldn’t have needed DNA evidence to exonerate him.
Corsello starts the piece with the rape scene:
Three little girls sleep in a house. They’re alone. It’s a strange house, long like a shoebox and only one room wide, tin-roofed, set on cinder blocks, removed from the street by a long steep rise. The house has no toys, no television, so the girls have spent the night playing dress-up – they’ve all gone to sleep wearing comically large women’s nightgowns. Katina is 7. She lies in her mama’s bed. Her 9-year-old sister, Latanya, curls on the living room couch with their friend, Lucretia. It’s a dim, grimy room, littered with beer cans and lit by a single red bulb propped in the front window.
The scene unfolds and we are forced to watch it:
The man mashes a thumb into Lucretia’s throat. Then, palming her forehead with both hands, he wallops the living room wall with her skull once, twice, three times.
We find out the perpetrator is black, big, bearded, wears a cowboy hat and boots. At the end of this brutal rape, he leaves behind a pair of size 40 boxer shorts. Then we meet Calvin:
Eleventh of June, 1981. Dawn. Calvin Willis wakes with a start. He feels odd. Not himself. He feels larger than himself, as if his spirit has grown beyond the boundaries of his body. …
At 22, Calvin Willis has a gift, an ease—the guileless, guileful appeal of a man with a blessed body that he is unafraid to fully inhabit. Big Hands, they call him. Not just for the physical fact of the hands, which would look enormous on a seven-foot man, much less one standing five feet eight, but because he is, simply, a handler. A man who knows how to dance fast and dance slow, how to tell a story, how to make his friends feel they’re at the center of things, afloat with him in his bubble of youth even as they’re stuck in Shreveport, Louisiana, an industrial smear near the Texas border.
In four sentences, I know Calvin is unusual, perhaps even special, a man who puts people at ease. Corsello then writes, “Calvin has always enjoyed being Calvin. Some months ago, the thrill began steadily growing.” I chuckled. There’s a thin line between being filled with yourself and full of yourself. Corsello puts Calvin on the right side of that line. It probably helped me that Corsello immediately tells us that Calvin’s increased love of himself brought a sense of purpose: He married his long-time girlfriend, he’s just quit his job as a sanitation worker because “he doesn’t want his kids having to say their daddy rides the back of a garbage truck,” and he’s about to take a test to become a long-haul truck driver. We see him openly talk to Jesus, like when the detective tries to get to him: “Sweet Jesus, I been trying to get good with you. You know that, right?” and we get his inner dialogue with God.
Corsello’s deft use of physical details throughout this piece helps me decide Calvin is innocent. In the first scene we see that he wears “a thick black belt with the nickel-plated buckle, tightly cinched around the taper of his 29-inch waist.” He makes love to his wife, and takes off his boxer shorts to do so. Corsello told me nothing directly, but from this detail I know that Calvin, like the rapist, wears boxers. Unlike the rapist, he is not big; his waist is not 40 inches. When a detective interviews Calvin, Calvin tells him about his shoes: “Dress shoes. Beige. Leather.”
These sorts of details stuck with me as a reader, and led to bewilderment and then anger in scenes where detectives, prosecutors and a judge all ignore them. Late in the piece, we will find out that the rape victim named the man who had come to the house when police came, and his name was not Calvin. By then, I was primed for outrage. Primed, in part, because I’ve spent the story experiencing Calvin’s life, and the life of his wife and Janet. Corsello puts me inside Janet’s head as she deals with the intransigence of Louisiana’s appeals system, and in the intricate, deep relationship she and Calvin develop. I am inside Calvin’s wife’s head the night before he comes home. I also experience Calvin’s life in prison. Here’s how Calvin feels about not being able to see his children:
…his need for his babies seizes and terrorizes him. There is no controlling it. He will try to numb himself, dip his mind in a gray vagueness for days at a time, but then something sharp – the ammoniac sting of industrial solvent in the mess, the cold shock of his cell’s stainless-steel shitter against his haunches – will jerk him to a state of full awareness and he will freeze, clasp his son’s first bib, which he keeps with him, over his eyes and say aloud ‘My babies.’ He discovers that his desperate hunger to touch them, compounded a hundredfold by the fact that he’s innocent – he is innocent! – is sometimes ameliorated by physical pain. One day he goes so far as to sneak into a room he’s not supposed to be in. When, inevitably, a guard approaches him saying “hey, you,” Calvin calmly wraps a hand around the man’s forearm, lowers himself into the man’s chest and flips him on his back. The storm comes within seconds, half a dozen guards with billy clubs, calling him nigger and bludgeoning his kidneys and shins until he no longer feels the agony of his lost children.
Corsello shows us the whole man, and in his desperation Calvin is not a model prisoner. But neither is the prison system a model. We see how guards beat prisoners and throw them in isolation chambers for even looking at a female guard, an offence called “reckless eyeballing.” We see how in Calvin’s time there, the sons of prison guards go from calling him “nigger” while he’s picking cotton for 4 cents an hour to become guards themselves, quick to punish. We come to understand how an isolation chamber provides a haven for an innocent man, a place where he can escape the attentions of guards who, when Calvin is exonerated, tell him every chance they get, “You’ll be back.” Through it all, we see that Calvin, with Janet’s help, maintains his sense of self, and, oddly, becomes more loving.
I read this as a story of faith and conviction. Religious faith, yes, and the literal conviction of an actual person, but also faith in humanity, conviction of human innocence, and the conflict that arises when such faith runs into a system that believes in itself so deeply it strives to ensure that its decisions, even when fraudulent, become fact.
Someone else could have read it as a narrative about what it’s like to be poor in America if you’re black or a woman. It’s also a cautionary tale about the corruption of justice. And it reflects the state of relations between white and black Americans in the 21st century. All of those are present in Corsello’s narrative, because they are part of Calvin’s life, and Janet’s.
I told someone that Corsello has an operatic writing voice he somehow shushed in doing this piece. In the end, this story echoed across the contours of my brain as if he had shouted.
Tomorrow: a conversation with Corsello about how he did this story.