Review: Green Fields: Crime, Punishment, and a Boyhood Between by Bob Cowser Jr. Print

greenfieldscover(Contray Magazine Fall 2010)

In Murder-Crazy America

Be warned, the writer Bob Cowser Jr is a grappler. He clinches, bear hugs, throws down, and pins his subject to the mat before we know what’s happening. In previous books, Dream Season: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team and Scorekeeping: Essays from Home, Cowser often corrals a foe, himself among them, belligerents with whom he grips tight and won’t let go.

Green Fields layers three such struggles: the murder of a child, the author’s link to the long-ago crime, and a polemic against the killer’s state-sponsored execution. Cowser tells the first of these with CSI-like precision: Eight-year-old Cary Ann Medlin is raped by twenty-three-year-old Robert Glen Coe, murdered, and left in a ditch beside Bean Switch Road outside of Greenfield, Tennessee, September 2, 1979. The author pushes us unsparingly into the senseless killing, the harried manhunt, the grisly find, the politically-tinged trial, the purgatory of appeals, a family begging for justice, and the unclean state execution with the pithy naturalism of a Dreiserian narrator.

But the book’s urgency lies in the second layer: Cowser’s stake. He wrote the book because he knew Cary Ann in grade school, albeit peripherally. He remembers her for her inclusionary spirit. Cowser positions himself as close to the happy-go-lucky girl as he can in memory:

Cary called my name, pleasant surprise in her voice. “Hey Bobby Cowser!”

I squinted to see her in the noonbright sun. Was she still living in an apartment there? She sat astride a bicycle . . . her fingers entwined in the chain link of the pool fence.

“What are you doing here?” she yelled.

Later she will tell Coe just before he kills her, a fact an amazed Coe confesses to a detective, that “Jesus loves you.”

Such deaths haunt us with their mythic import. Mourning them, we lose our innocence as do the victim’s friends, family, and community. The brutality we escape introduces us to a world far more cracked than ours, which, bizarrely, we are drawn to and can never understand.

And yet, despite the fissure, we Americans love murder. In primetime drama, in assassination conspiracies, in hybrid narrative. (In my own murder journalism, I’m no longer shocked when the family hates me for spilling the story.) What bedevils writers like Cowser or Joyce Carol Oates makes any of us tremble: How can such demonic killers live beside us, unseen and unsuspected? We convince ourselves that niceness rules, that threats are unreal, exaggerated. Our ritualized fixation on murder—a funhouse in which we are predictably scared witless—suggests that ignoring the criminal’s unquenchable rage elicits thrills gotten nowhere else.

However tentatively, Cowser explores this schism by contrasting Cary Ann’s loving nature and supportive home life to Coe’s brutalized childhood during which his father regularly made his sons watch him have sex with his daughters.

The best part of the book develops from Cowser’s brief, intense encounter with Cary Ann’s mother, Charlotte Stout, who believes the author’s qualms about the death penalty are stupidly uninformed. A capital crusader, Stout endures years of heartache, remarking how everything good in her “had been drained.” It takes years before she “realized the whole world did not do this to me, Robert Coe did.”

It’s a testament to Cowser’s bulldogging that despite his abhorrence of the death penalty—he calls himself an accomplice in Coe’s demise, a onetime citizen of the state that executed him—he lets Stout’s rage and remembrance resonate. In flint-sharp reportorial detail, he drags us through the long slog of appeals and to Coe’s death by injection—sedatives and drugs to induce cardiac arrest. Before dying, Coe withholds remorse because, as Stout says, “he knew that was all I wanted [an admission of guilt], so that was his only way of hurting me.”

This book is buoyed by its fair trade between author and his many-tentacled subject. Cowser’s tapping the horrors of both “crimes” is fearsome, penitent, and grave. The tale contains much of the sad despair and Job-like vengeance we feel for the brutishly killed Clutter family in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or the father-raped Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Despite such attempts to demonize, then humanize, killers, I can’t help but feel a primal and prejudicial respect for Cary Ann’s and her mother’s suffering, which is unmoved by the dread Cowser parcels out against a blood-lusting judicial system. I’ll be as plain as day. I doubt anyone shares any similarity to or loses much sympathy for Coe just because he or she believes this monster should die.