“But I still can’t figure out why…”
When the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo escaped from prison for the second time earlier this summer, the media drew the obvious comparisons. The Guardian called it “a Hollywood-style escape,” while Patrick Radden Keefe of The New Yorker wrote:
A jail break is a kind of math problem, and when we read about these incidents there is a tendency to marvel at the ingenuity on display and to start identifying with, and even rooting for, the escapee. This is probably only natural. Chapo is hardly the first antihero to seize the popular imagination, and the most reliable formula of the Hollywood thriller is to place your protagonist in a situation from which there is no escape, and then watch while he escapes.
All of the elements were there: a cell covered by security cameras, except for one crucial corner; a secret tunnel complete with lights, air ducts, and even a motorcycle modified to run on rails; and, of course, a frantic manhunt and search for the escapee’s accomplices. Compared to the rather grubby details of the previous month’s New York prison escape, it felt like a slick, efficient production, if not particularly original. (As Keefe observes: “Chapo, famously, has a thing for tunnels.”)
If the result reminded many observers of a movie, it was also because we associate that kind of elaborate escape effort, involving a huge amount of outside support, with fiction. And for good reason. In real life, there’s rarely the infrastructure or the desire to break a single human being out of prison, no matter how powerful he or she might have been on the outside. Roger Ebert put his finger on this point in his review of Die Hard 2, which turns on the rescue of a different sort of drug tyrant, this time modeled on Noriega—although not, incidentally, named Mr. Falcon:
A more serious problem involves the whole rescue operation itself. When Manuel Noriega was taken captive and returned to the United States to stand trial, there was little serious effort to save him: At the end, he was a refugee in his own country, reduced to seeking asylum in the residence of a Vatican diplomat. Would anyone have the means, the money and the will to mount such a vast and complicated terrorist operation simply to save one drug-connected dictator? Even if he does bear an uncanny resemblance to Fidel Castro? I doubt it.
Ebert concludes: “But on the other hand, I don’t care.” The attempted escape is really just the engine to drive the plot, and from a writer’s point of view, it’s the escape that enables the plan, not the other way around.
This may be why prison break stories are much more effective when told from the point of view of the man behind bars. When the story focuses on the plotters on the outside, their motivations always seem somewhat forced: it’s unclear why any prisoner would be worth all that trouble, particularly in criminal enterprises that tend to quickly reassemble themselves under a new hierarchy, and which could be run as easily from within jail as outside it. (Goodfellas conveys this beautifully.) For the prisoner himself, though, the reasons are abundantly clear. The details of the escape in The Shawshank Redemption are as implausible, in their own way, as in any pulp thriller, but we accept and are even moved by them because they’re expressions of Andy and Red’s desire for freedom. A prison break told from the inside is an allegory for the human condition; from the outside, it feels like another mechanical pursuit of a MacGuffin. And it’s inherent to the way these stories are structured. A plot in which a prisoner is rescued by others, no matter how many justifications we invent, both distances us emotionally from the action and arouses all kinds of intellectual objections. The difference between a story in which we don’t believe a single second and one in which we’re involved at every moment can turn on something as basic as that question of emphasis.
Of course, sometimes a writer doesn’t have a choice. Much of Eternal Empire focuses on the escape from prison of Vasylenko, a Russian vor whose situation sets off most of the alarms I mention above: he’s an old man, more than capable of running a criminal network from the inside, and dangerous enough that most of his associates would probably be glad just to be rid of him. So why break him out at all? After some thought, I hit on a fairly interesting rationale. In Chapter 33, Wolfe lampshades all of the obvious objections, and then figures it out:
There’s one thing a thief can do that nobody else can. He can talk to other thieves…Vasylenko is useful only as a symbol. An icon in the form of a man. He can open doors, guarantee safe passage, draw on the full resources of the brotherhood. But only if he’s there in person.
I still like this explanation, because it very helpfully drives the rest of the plot: Vasylenko has to be physically transported at great risk to Moldova, one of the few countries where the old ways still have force, to facilitate the larger conspiracy in which he plays only a small part. Ilya, his companion in the escape, has more personal motivations. And between the two of them, they provide just enough of a reason for the reader to want to see where they’re going next…