Essays Book Monster

Twenty-five years to life in prison—that's the sentence facing our main man, Steve Harmon.

Steve is pretty freaked out, in need of a way to deal with both the trial and the nastiness surrounding him in prison. Just writing in his journal isn't cutting it, so he begins chronicling his experience in screenplay form as well.

The film begins with opening statements and other generic courtroom stuff, none of which is particularly interesting, but things start to heat up shortly thereafter when witnesses start taking the stand.

The witnesses in the trial come from all walks of life. There's Richard "Bobo" Evans, the thug who claims Steve was a lookout at the crime; James King, another badboy on trial; Osvaldo Cruz, the poser; Mr. Sawicki, Steve's fave teacher; Dorothy Moore, James King's cousin; Dr. James Moody, the medical examiner; and even Steve himself. Need we say more?

The drama doesn't just happen in the courtroom, though, as the film periodically cuts to flashbacks from Steve's past. In addition to keeping things interesting, this gives us as readers more insight into our main man.

Outside the story of the film, every night we see Steve return to his cell, terrified and scribbling his desperation in a journal that has nothing to do with the film version of his thoughts. The question that haunts him most is: Am I truly a monster?

Despite his struggle, the show must go on. The trial ends with closing arguments, a camera dramatically panning the courtroom… and the verdict: not guilty for Steve, guilty for James King. Ecstatic, Steve turns to hug his attorney, but she turns away from him, and his form—arms outstretched and unmet—faces the camera for a final horrifying moment.

That's the end of Monster the film, folks, but not the end for Steve. Five months later, he scribbles again in his journal, still haunted by the aftermath of the trial. Why did his attorney turn away? Who is he really? He films himself, talks to his reflection, and seeks answers.

The sad thing is, though, that those answers will probably never quite come.

Walter Dean Myers’s Monster is an experimental novel written in the form of a film script by its main character, Steve Harmon. Portions of the novel also take the form of a diary kept by Harmon. Harmon is on trial for participating in a robbery and murder. In script mode, the novel alternates between representations of action in the narrative present of Harmon’s murder trial and flashbacks to events that preceded the crime. This alternation between methods of representation heightens tension and facilitates changes in mood from emotional indulgence to strong restraint. The method requires an active and thinking reader, not a passive receptor of information.

As related in the novel, on December 22, two men—most likely Richard “Bobo” Evans and James King—entered a drugstore in Harlem owned by Alguinaldo Nesbitt. José Delgado was assistant to Mr. Nesbitt, but Delgado was not present at the time of the crime. Flashbacks reveal that Steve Harmon, the main character, was present at a conversation about the crime. In flashback, King points out that bank robberies are not advisable because “the man comes down hard for bank money.” He speculates that a crime against a noncitizen—one with a green card or an illegal immigrant—would not be as harshly prosecuted. Harmon merely listens and does not contribute to these reflections. A heavy woman named Peaches also listens to this conversation; however, she is not later accused as a participant in the crime, although her level of participation seems in all respects equal to Harmon’s.

This and other flashbacks reveal that King, Evans, and Harmon are from the same milieu; however, the flashbacks do not establish Harmon’s complicity in the crime. The story does not offer simple answers to readers, who must draw their own conclusions about the crime and trial. It is possible that Harmon scouted the drugstore for King and Evans or acted as a lookout for them. He may also be innocent.

In one possible reconstruction of the crime, King and Evans enter the drugstore and demand money. Nesbitt is armed. He attempts to guard his property against the two robbers. In the struggle, he loses the gun and is shot by either Evans or King. Lorelle Henry, a retired teacher, identifies King as one of the people present in the store. Her eyewitness testimony is not entirely reliable, however, and is challenged by defense attorneys. A recap of police procedures also inspires significant levels of doubt about the reliability of Henry’s account.

A prisoner’s dilemma underlies these ambiguities. Evans hopes for a lighter sentence, admits his part in the events, and implicates the other two defendants. While Harmon had heard of the crime in the abstract from King, there is no evidence that either Evans or King discussed a role for Harmon in the actual commission of the crime. What is clearly the case is that Nesbitt has been killed and that Evans and King have something to do with the robbery and perhaps also the death of the owner. Whether or to what extent Harmon served as a lookout, who pulled the trigger, and who had sufficient motive are all left unclear.

Diary entries that appear as interludes between court scenes generate compassion for the narrator. He records feelings of resentment, fear, and sadness. He also demonstrates a low self-image as a consequence of the prosecuting attorney’s referring to him as a “monster.” In fact, portions of Harmon’s diary evince a kind of self-rage and indulgences in self-pity on the part of the narrator. Both Steve Harmon, at age sixteen, and Osvaldo Cruz, a fourteen-year-old fellow inmate, are far too young for the environment in which a reader finds them. In fact, Cruz has come to the attention of the police because he has been accused by his girlfriend of having gotten another girl pregnant.

The novel seeks to represent reality by interweaving and integrating disparate discourses into a tapestry that defies logical analysis. One prisoner points out that ascertaining the truth is not the aim of the court; instead, if a crime has been committed, someone must be locked up. What that person says about his or her innocence or guilt is immaterial to the decision of the jury. A reader who sees the U.S. juridicial system as an adversarial process essentially devoted to contests of wit may readily agree.

After representing all the ambiguities and uncertainties of the narrator’s plight, the roving-camera narration records the final statements of all the trial’s attorneys. It does nothing to resolve the ambiguities, which remain very much part of the story. The jury convicts King, but it absolves Harmon of any responsibility for the crime. Harmon and his family are greatly relieved, but when he seeks to hug his attorney in appreciation for the victorious outcome, she turns aside and shuffles papers in preparation for leaving. The trial, it seems, has not bridged the gap between the product of the ghetto, Steve Harmon, and the attorney who lives the life of a suburbanite. Steve concludes rightly that his own attorney is not entirely convinced of his innocence.

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