Beck McDowell's Reviews > In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White
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Feb 08, 11

Read in February, 2011

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is well written, compelling, and entertaining. My reader-brain loved White's interesting characters, vivid descriptions, and witty dialogue. The writer in me was drawn to Neil White's use of contrasting themes and images: the quiet contentment of the leper colony vs. the violence and unrest of the adjacent prison, the peaceful setting of the oak-lined plantation turned leprosarium against the sparse accommodations of the prison cell, the misshapen limbs of the sick vs. the obsessive body-building of some inmates, and most importantly - the arrogance and narcissism of the memoirist entering the prison contrasted with the self-awareness and introspection of the man leaving.

I agree with the reviewers who disliked Neil White intensely in the first half of the book, but isn't that the point? He was a thoroughly unlikable con man, bilking his friends for millions and his mother of her life savings without regard for anyone but himself. He made no attempt to learn from his early mistakes or to take advantage of the second chance he was given even before getting caught and arrested.

White's descriptions of the patients he befriended are touching - the simple wisdom of Ella and the gentle friendliness of Harry. His humorous accounts of the inmates are great fun - Link with his crude real world perspective, Doc's intellectual tunnel vision, and Jimmy Hoffa's lawyers descriptions of his client's love of farting. The variety of the short scenes makes the book a quick read, along with the appeal of the Southern gothic charm the Mardi Gras parades, "high-stakes" Monopoly games with a financial shysters , and the smuggling of everything from muffalettas to prostitutes into the facility.

There are lessons to be learned here, in particular Ella's cola bottle story, which ends with the moral than a leopard (with a nod to Link) can't change his spots. When White worries about how to be a different man when released, Ella reminds him that the characteristics that led to his downfall will never go away. He'll always be proud, needy of attention, and egotistical. She teaches him he must find a way to channel those flaws into achievements that benefit others.

And the other important lesson is the one White learns about the superficiality of his world (and modern society.) His aversion to the stumps of lost limbs when he first meets the leprosy patients results from an obsession with beauty that led him to date beauty queens and undergo plastic surgery to hide the scar on his forehead from a childhood accident. What he learns from the patients at Carville is that real beauty comes from a simplicity of spirit and a generosity of self that have nothing to do with outer appearances.
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