“Multi-layered” is how to describe this offering from prolific writer, filmmaker and photographer, Danny Lyon, in his first full-length, non-fiction book Like A Thief’s Dream. The story takes place over a 30-year period and to best appreciate the work it is helpful to consider a couple of key figures from US history. In 1970, Yippie radical Jerry Rubin published DO IT! Scenarios of the Revolution, with an introduction written in exile by then Black Panther leader and ex-prisoner Eldridge Cleaver. On the inner sleeve of DO IT! is a Norman Mailer quote from his 1969 book Armies of the Night.
Lyon sets the tone by describing the American public’s ignorance of their prison system throughout the ’60s, until, in 1971 –after the publication of Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver – the New York State maximum security unit Attica exploded in a dramatic uprising. The prisoners demanded and received live television time. Lyon was arrested with Mailer in 1967 during a demonstration at the Pentagon: Armies of the Night was Mailer’s account of this protest, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.
For photojournalists and fans of Lyon’s photography, it is intriguing to read how he was introduced to the Texas prison system by a clown at a prison rodeo and given unprecedented access to “the Walls” prison in Houston. It is at the Walls that Lyon’s landmark book on prison life, Conversations with the Dead, is set. The focus of Thief’s Dream is the extraordinary friendship he had with a prisoner at the Walls, James Renton. The two had plenty to draw them together: both in their 20s, both “potheads” with a shared love of photography. In fact, Renton photographed and made lithograph plates for Lyon’s portfolio, Born to Lose.
Don’t buy this book for Lyon’s photography. Lyon himself admits, “Throughout my time inside the Walls I was never able to make a particularly good picture of Jimmy Renton.” We are, however, treated to Lyon’s picture of the filmmaker Robert Frank in a cell at the Walls with Renton and another prisoner, Aaron Everet Jones, when Lyon invited Frank to do some filming there. And, perhaps even better, a shot by Robert Frank of Lyon with his inmate mates.
Renton was half way through an 11-year sentence for burglary. The two met once in the free world but things suddenly got heavier when Renton, along with three others, was involved in the murder of a 22-year-old Arkansas policeman after the burglary of a department store. Renton was one of America’s 10 Most Wanted Men.
In the courtroom on trial for his life, it was established that, by prison standards, Renton was an intelligent individual, possessing a code of ethics, charm and wit. The strength of this book is Renton’s character unveiled in his letters to Lyon, his confidant. When speaking about the former inmate Everet, who Lyon kept in touch with, Renton said, “Everet’s a wonderful person. The only thing wrong with him is his brain would fit inside a walnut shell.” And when Renton received photos from Lyon of his home and family, he replied, “Your two are leading an ideal life – like a thief’s dream.” Renton escaped from prison and was on the road for two adventurous months. In epistolary form he recounted the events for Lyon.
With Renton’s death in prison from hepatitis C, the epilogue to Lyon’s 30 years of probing and persevering unearthed details of what actually happened the night of the policeman’s death. The likelihood is that one of the four members found guilty of the crime was not at the scene and yet was serving a life sentence. In the 1960s Lyon spoke softly and carried a camera; now he might consider himself a classic documentarian. In his quest for truth he seems to have left no stone unturned.