On August 16, 1986, Eric Kane, 16, was found murdered in a room at the University Inn in Flagstaff. He had been brutally stabbed to death. Six days later, Jacob Wideman, also 16, who had shared the room with Kane and then fled the scene, surrendered to police in the company of his father and the well-known Phoenix criminal attorney Mike Kimerer.
The first thing Kimerer did was get a court order prohibiting Flagstaff police from attempting to question his client unless the lawyer were present. This was a heavy-heat case in which extraordinary measures were being taken to protect the accused. All stops were being pulled out to protect him from self-incrimination.
The case became more celebrated back East than it was here in Arizona. Young Wideman, you see, was the son of the critically acclaimed black novelist John Edgar Wideman, who has twice been awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for literature.
But both boys had grown up in fortunate circumstances.
Kane, the victim, was the son of a vice president of IBM, and was raised on Long Island. His scholastic records showed he was an outstanding student and possibly the most popular member of his class.
Jacob Wideman never did stand trial. He entered a guilty plea and accepted a life sentence.
His father's articles decrying racism appear in such magazines as Esquire, Harper's and McCall's. Recently, he wrote about the causes of the Los Angeles riots.
The elder Wideman has achieved much. He was the second black American in 50 years to receive a Rhodes scholarship. He remained in England three years, studying 18th-century literature. Before that, Wideman had been a Phi Beta Kappa student and captain of the basketball team at the University of Pennsylvania.
Wideman's best-known book to date is Brothers and Keepers. It is a nonfiction account of growing up in the black ghetto of Homewood in Pittsburgh. The focus of the story is Wideman's younger brother, Robby, who didn't make it to college. Instead, he became a drug dealer who was given a sentence of life imprisonment after being involved in a felony murder.
Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post called Brothers and Keepers "powerful and disturbing . . . guaranteed to shock and sadden."
The Denver Post said: "If you care at all about brotherhood and dignity and other such things, this is a must-read book."
I never could figure out what the Denver Post meant by the phrase "and other such things."
In 1986, when Jacob Wideman murdered his roommate with a hunting knife that at least two witnesses later told Flagstaff police he had been compulsively sharpening for a week, the elder Wideman was teaching English at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
Young Wideman and Kane, the two boys, met that summer at a boys' camp in New York state. They became friends. There was never any tension between them. They became part of a group of campers touring the Western states after the close of camp. They planned to visit the Grand Canyon the morning after their overnight stay in Flagstaff.
Why, you ask, did Jacob Wideman follow the path of his rogue uncle, Robby, and not that of his writer father? It is not that he had a problem with Jews. His mother's maiden name, in fact, is Judith Ann Goldman. As the product of a mixed marriage, Jacob appeared more white-skinned than black.
Then I thought I had found the answer. In looking through my August 1 copy of the New Yorker magazine, I noticed in the table of contents that John Edgar Wideman had written about his son's crime.
"Personal History," the piece was labeled. There was an additional explanation: "A father examines his family and its losses, six years after his son was convicted of murder and sentenced to life."
(Although the murder occurred in 1986, Jacob did not begin serving time in prison until 1988.)
Avidly, I plunged into Wideman's tale. At first, it was slow going. Wideman is one of those literary writers who confuses prolixity with profundity. He cannot tell a straight story. He must first impress you with the depth of his emotions. To him, everything is Moby-Dick.
But I dutifully forged ahead, believing this was my best shot at learning about the senseless Flagstaff crime. Certainly, I thought, an author of Wideman's talents should have some significant insights to offer by now.
Then, about halfway through the piece, I came to the following passage. The words appear to be addressed directly to his imprisoned son, Jacob, now 24 years old: