Photographer Danny Lyon has spent much of his career documenting the overlooked and underreported, be it an outlaw motorcycle gang (The Bikeriders ) or the nineteenth-century buildings demolished to make way for the World Trade Center (The Destruction of Lower Manhattan ). In 1967, his quest to photograph society’s outsiders took him to the Texas Department of Corrections. There, Lyon knew he would find a subject most people had never seen. (It would be four more years before the tragic Attica uprising brought prison life into public consciousness.) In a facility nicknamed “the Walls,” he met career criminal James Ray Renton, who was then doing time for burglary.
Their friendship lasted almost thirty years, until Renton’s death in 1996, and this story is now the subject of Lyon’s first nonfiction prose book, Like a Thief’s Dream. In 1979, when Lyon appeared as a character witness during the sentencing phase of Renton’s second trial, the photographer stated that he found the prisoner to be likable, charming, and smart. Renton had just been convicted of capital murder.
There are two conundrums in this book. One is the question of whether Renton actually murdered an Arkansas policeman in 1975, the crime that earned him a life sentence. (He was at least an accessory, and Lyon’s testimony helped him avoid the death penalty.) The second concerns the friendship itself, conducted all those years through letters, collect calls, and Lyon’s visits to various maximum-security facilities. Renton spent about seven years of his adult life out of jail. He stole, counterfeited, and killed (two men apart from the police officer). He said Lyon’s life was “like a thief’s dream,” and he had everything to gain by knowing him. Lyon’s fascination is harder to understand. In 1996, as the convict lay dying of hepatitis C in a prison infirmary, Lyon sent a last letter, telling Renton that he had filled a space in Lyon’s life that no one else could have. I wish Lyon had said what that space was.
Though he identified Renton as being “among my closest friends,” Lyon never asked him point-blank whether he killed that police officer. After Renton died, Lyon tracked down the remaining accomplices. Truth stays elusive, but he determined that one of these men, Dinker Cassell, was probably not even present when the murder occurred. Cassell, however, is also serving a life sentence for the crime. He, too, was a career criminal, first incarcerated at age eleven. These are wasted lives, ruled by folly and chance. The officer who died had stopped Renton’s van (full of stolen goods) simply because a seat-belt buckle was hanging out the door, sparking when it hit the pavement.
Renton escaped from prison in 1988, eluded police for eight weeks, and savored every free moment. Like a Thief’s Dream incorporates much of the gripping, though unfinished, account of Renton’s life on the lam. He could write, and he was capable of enough introspection to acknowledge where his choices had led him. After meeting a woman who serves him the last homecooked meal he would ever have, Renton says, “I was overwhelmed with a sense of loss, a terrible loss for everything in my life that might have been.”