RIDGWAY – The book title says a lot: Letters from the Pen.
It tells you that author Dale McCurry is a literate man, a man able and willing to indulge in word play while writing actual letters from federal prison.
In this instance, the letters in question are a collection of columns sent from the pen to a weekly newspaper in Eureka Springs, Ark., the Lovely County Citizen. And because prison rules forbade inmates from having a byline on the outside, the columns were published under the nom de plume Curly MacRed.
Curly, nee Dale, having served his time and moved to the Western Slope, will be reading from and signing copies of Letters from the Pen at Cimarron Books and Coffee in Ridgway, from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday June 26.
McCurry did four years and seven months for a white-collar crime he describes in the preface as “a rather inventive method of raising venture capital for my environmental company” which “degenerated slowly, painfully to little more than a Ponzi scheme – though I didn’t know there was a name for it at the time.”
Investors lost a lot of money, and McCurry lost his freedom, his wife of 25 years and his good name in the Ozarks country of southwest Missouri, where his people are from.
But, as the book shows, McCurry gained something of value while incarcerated. Writing was at the core of his sanity while on the inside, his rehabilitation, his way back to the world of work and love and forgiveness.
He wrote more or less continuously – while simultaneously keeping out of trouble and honing his ear to the particularities of inmate speech and customs – and developed his craft to the point where the owners of the Lovely County Citizen had a job waiting when Dale got out.
McCurry is at his best when writing about his fellow inmates: Marti, a cross-dressing devotee of Martha Stewart; E, an Elvis impersonator who talks in song lyrics; Tongue Cutter; Crazy Charlie; X; and Slick, who had “Exit Only” tattooed on his ass.
For one column McCurry decided to ask his homies which was their favorite Beatle.
Marti: “Paul, of course. He’s cute. I would kill for Paul’s lashes.”
X: “John. Definitely John. Dig? I mean, rev . . . o . . . lu . . . shun, man!”
Crazy Charlie: “George. After three straight days of cookin’ and you’re startin’ ta crash, put on ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ crank it up, and keep on keepin’ on. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Soooeee!”
Slick: “Beatles? You got to be kiddin’ me. Doan be waysin’ my time ‘bout no muh*@!gin Beatles.”
McCurry can be deadly serious, too. In a column about lock-down, he brings up the fact that there are two sets of rules, the institution’s rules and the inmates’ rules. “Break the institution’s rules and you might earn a few days in the hole and lose some phone or commissary privileges. Break the inmates’ rules and you will be visited by a small group of enforcers swinging socks full of combination locks.”
But, as McCurry takes pains to point out, Letters from the Pen is “not about prison life, it is about my life . . . in prison.” He read a lot, and mused in print about the meaning of Vonnegut, or J.D. Salinger. He even brought the Dalai Lama into the cell block with him, along with the Tibetan concept of sö pa – “able to withstand” or “the strength to . . . protect us from losing compassion even for those who would harm us.”
McCurry is a natural philosopher. Sometimes in his essay-experiments it carries him into murky terrain. But the spirit is clear: The book, he says, is “about facing our demons, putting one foot in front of the other, and coming out the other side.”
As for the deliberately vague writing about his crime, McCurry says, “I figured I’d paid my dues. Lying in the county jail cell, I had to see my face on the 6 o’clock news and know my family was watching, too.”
He also wrote, “I pardon my own past.”
McCurry, who lives in Ridgway now with partner Jennifer Mandaville, and with her runs WellSpring Publishing, says life is not a metaphor. As he wrote in Letters from the Pen, “I was not ‘imprisoned’ by love or melancholy . . . I was in prison – razor wire, guards, soap-on-a-rope.” He writes about it vividly enough to put you right there with him.