February 13, 1995 12:00 PM

by Tim Willocks

On its slick surface, Green River Rising is as fine a thriller as one could ask for, swirling with intrigue, action and fluid realism. But underneath, in the depths and quiet pools, larger shadows are moving: meditations on incarceration, guilt, violence and the nature of humankind. In this novel, Willocks manages to fish the bottom while keeping the tourists entertained.

Green River is an East Texas prison for some 2,800 hard cases. In the simmering heat of its Victorian buildings, violence is the norm, HIV is pandemic, and the only motto to live by is “Not My F-king Business.” Here, inmate Dr. Ray Klein, who works as an orderly in the AIDS-ridden prison hospital, keeps his head down, his thoughts to himself and tries to serve his time without getting raped or killed. But on the very day that Klein finally wins a parole, warden John Hobbes, a tormented penologist who has lost faith in the system’s power to reform offenders, deliberately sparks a riot between black and white prisoners.

The ensuing holocaust consumes Green River. Trapped in a hell of fire, murder and pillage, Klein must either save himself as a parolee by leaving with the guards or try to make his way to the infirmary to rescue forensic psychologist Juliette Devlin. Klein’s journey is a mythic saga: the way out is down. He must navigate the sewers beneath the prison to rescue the maiden and find his own salvation.

Green River demands all of a reader’s resolve. Willocks quotes from Kant and William James and details the blood chemistry of AIDS and the precise physiological mechanics of anal sex between males. Finally, though, Ray Klein wades in deeper, as the reader will do as well: “A moment came when you had to put aside the kind of knowledge Devlin had such command of—the genetics and biochemistry and the psychodynamics—and just stand in the shoes of the madman and take a look for yourself.” It is a memorable view from the heaviest of currents. (Morrow, $23)

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