Prepare to be appalled — by Thomas Rayfiel; Ethan Harms, his creation; or yourself, for falling for him. In Rayfiel’s previous novel, “Genius,” his delightful young narrator asks: “How is it that, despite my strenuous attempts to defy convention, I alone am left to define normal?” Ethan Harms, the narrator of Rayfiel’s new novel, “Harms’ Way,” presents readers with a similar conundrum — but in a very different register.

Harms, in a prison at least as grim as Shawshank, announces himself from the first: “I am unacquainted with evil, there being no mirror here.” It is up to the reader to supply context, because, although a researcher trying to prompt him mentions “the women you killed,” Ethan does not want to talk about it — “because it is a bore.”

“But of course no one wants to hear how normal you are,” he says, “how much you are like them. They get enough of that in their everyday lives.” And indeed, as Ethan tells it, as he endures beatings, is tricked into betraying a fellow prisoner, is subjected to drastic punishment for saving another (the Heimlich maneuver, no less), his “common” humanity is what distinguishes him. And when a seizure finally levels him, it is: “Epilepsy. A common condition shared with ‘millions of ordinary people.’ ”

It is tempting to read the entire novel as an extended metaphor — a temptation that Ethan encourages, telling us, as he withdraws, “I am transcending this place, this prison of one’s flesh and desires.” And yet, he is no more capable of transcending the flesh and desires that define him than is Shakespeare’s Richard II, “studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world.”

“And for because the world is populous,” Richard goes on, “And here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.” Cooney, the convict Ethan inadvertently betrays, gets this. When people get together in a group, he says, and let that group speak for them, they lose their manatee. Manatee? Ethan corrects him: “Their humanity.”

“No, Humanity is humanity in general,” Cooney counters. “But if it’s mine alone, it’s just that. My manatee.”

What a reader has to come to terms with in this novel is how much of humanity Ethan Harms represents. Are we to align ourselves with the flesh and desires of his familiar prison — or can we cling to the fiction that the prison is all of his own making, his alone, his manatee?

Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Wisconsin. Reach her at

Harms' Way
By: Thomas Rayfiel.
Publisher: The Permanent Press, 227 pages, $29.95.