The Mars Room of the book's title is a strip club in San Francisco where the book's protagonist, Romy Hall, gives lap dances. Suffice to say, it is not a high-class joint. Romy, who often exhibits a dark humor about life in general, describes it thusly: "If you'd showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren't misspelled you were hot property. If you weren't five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night."
Romy ekes out a living for herself and her young son with her work at the club. Life is not exactly good but it is bearable and the love of her life is that son, called Jackson.
Romy is in her twenties, having survived a chaotic childhood that was marked by drug use and sexual licentiousness. Her father was gone and her mother was not a strong presence in her life. Predictably, that life went off the rails.
Romy spent a few years working in the Mars Room, but during most of the time that we know her, she is in quite a different room, a much more claustrophobic one: a women's prison in California's Central Valley. She has received two consecutive life sentences for killing a man.
The man she killed was someone she had met at the Mars Room. He had become one of her "regulars" and finally had become completely obsessed with her. He ended up stalking her and when she left the Mars Room and moved to Los Angeles, he discovered her address there and turned up on her front porch one night. Perceiving him as a threat to her and her son, she beat his head with an iron bar, killing him.
Her trial is something of a joke. Her public defender seems incompetent and no exculpatory evidence - such as the fact that the victim was her stalker - is presented. Conviction is a foregone conclusion.
Romy goes to prison and Jackson is left in the care of her mother. But then a terrible thing happens: her mother is killed in an auto crash, in which Jackson is also injured. Romy is not able to find out any information. She is wild with grief and worry for Jackson and is put in administrative segregation and then on suicide watch for a while. There is no other family to look after Jackson and her parental rights are subsequently terminated because of her long prison sentence and the child disappears into the foster care system. She is never able to find out what happened to her son.
The portrait that Kushner gives us of prison life is vivid and obviously extensively researched. We learn all about the cliques, the smuggling of contraband, lice treatments, violence triggered by racism or other forms of bigotry and intolerance, and, most of all, boredom. The mind-numbing sameness of the days breeds ennui, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. Kushner tells us, too, about the inventive ways that the incarcerated women try to combat the boredom with surreptitious parties and crafting.
Romy finds some relief from the boredom when an academic who teaches at the prison brings her books to read. A burgeoning relationship develops between the two and Romy tries to inveigle his assistance in finding out what has happened to her son. One intuits that this will not end well.
I was mesmerized by Kushner's narrative right from the beginning, especially with how she echoes other writers. Dostoyevski, for example. She explores his theories about evil, about how there are many kinds but not all are recognized. In the thoughts of that teacher at the prison, "There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools." Those abstract forms are the ones practiced by societies and governments and for which they deny responsibility.
She also shares an interesting perspective and insight with the juxtaposition of the writing of two men who chose to live, in their own way, outside of society: Henry David Thoreau and Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber. She quotes quite extensively from Kaczynski's diaries and, in truth, his ideas do seem to mirror in many ways those of Thoreau. Fascinating.
I have not read Kushner's earlier much-praised books, but now I certainly want to.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars