Big Shiny Prison, The: Volume 1: By Ryan Bartek, 484 pgs. By Michael T. Fournier

Apr 28, 2016

The unfortunate heart of this tome lies on page 391, in a how-to on touring band life. The section is titled “Maintain The Illusion At All Costs,” and the passage in question reads: “the random individual automatically assumes you are bigger then (sic) you actually are because you’re on tour. Let them believe what they will… (e)ven though you know you’re a shit-head, they think you’re Captain Cool, and it will be all worth it in the end when they call their friends the next day.” 

It’s funny, because the almost four hundred pages that precede this passage— and the hundred after it—feel like the author taking his own advice. This book, the first of several installments, recounts Ryan Bartek’s nine months on the road, on busses and on tour, all the adventures he has, all the people and bands he talks to and interviews. But despite all the experience, all the words and pages, remarkably little is said. Travelogue is a well-trod formula and through the lens of punk rock, something new might be added to the recipe. And while Bartek takes more care with his prose than a lot of self-published authors, there’s not enough fresh material (or even hot takes) to sustain concentrated reading. Yeah, part of this is the nature of the narrative—travel means a succession of ideas, images, people— but for all the Hunter Thompson and Kerouac namedrops, all the mentions of “the underground,” there’s remarkably little here that’s new or innovative. Some of it’s interesting, don’t get me wrong, such as Bartek’s interview with Columbine survivor Eric Parsons, but this book is a slog. 
Too often the author seems to be struggling to figure out who he’s addressing. The book begins with a sort of primer about punk and metal which feels mansplain-y, and continues, later, with the tour rules I quoted above (which also contains such gems as, “You’ll have opportunities here and there. BE CAREFUL. If she isn’t a mega-slut that’s fucked everyone in town she’s going to leave comments all over your MySpace page and your REAL girlfriend will find out.”). Is this addressed to the “underground” community? I think by the end he’s talking only to himself. 
With editing, with careful consideration of which bands’ interviews to include, this book may have been salvageable. Alas, it’s a mess. With that said, don’t take my word for it: The Big Shiny Prison, Volume 1 is available as a free PDF on the author’s web page. Check it out for yourself. (

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