cover image God of the Rodeo: The Search for Hope, Faith, and a Six-Second Ride in Louisiana's Angola Prison

God of the Rodeo: The Search for Hope, Faith, and a Six-Second Ride in Louisiana's Angola Prison

Daniel Bergner, Bergner, Dan Bergner. Crown Publishers, $24 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-609-60105-1

Bergner (Moments of Favor) offers a fascinating portrait of the inmates of a maximum security penitentiary (Angola) in a state (Louisiana) where a life sentence means 'til you die. Providing the frame and the protagonists is Angola's annual fall rodeo, where inmates compete in such events as ""Guts & Glory,"" trying to grab a $100 chip from between the horns of an angry bull. Wondering why these men would submit themselves to such harm for little glory and less money, Bergner decided to follow six of them from one year's rodeo to the next. With a comfortable sympathy for warden Burt Cain and his program of faith and rehabilitation, Bergner spent his first five months freely interviewing guards and inmates. But in January, Cain suddenly demanded first editorial veto, then a cut of the royalties. Refusing both, Bergner lost entrance to the prison and while a lawsuit reinstated his access, the interruption (of interviews and narrative) opened Bergner's eyes to the warden's despotic paternalism (his new programs included shoe-shine detail and car-wash detail) and inspired greater confidence from inmates. Whether by dumb luck or design, Bergner's half-dozen subjects turned out to be inspired ones. A couple of them seemed simply criminals doing time; the others were looking for something transcendent, whether through God, family or rodeo. Bergner brilliantly balances the pathos of this life (e.g., the fear of being buried in a flimsy state-issued coffin) with the violent facts of the crimes. Had Bergner been a less scrupulous journalist and glossed over the rupture in the center of his account, it might have made a better narrative. But it would not have been so honest. (Oct.)