Over time we come to understand that Ethan is an unreliable narrator—not only isn’t he telling us much, but what he does tell us can’t be trusted. This technique works on multiple levels: it draws us in, creating a powerful thirst to know more about Ethan, and it generates considerable tension (we know what we learn won’t be good). Harms’ Way... is ingenious in its construction, gut-punching in its final moments.
Harms’ Way is a chilling journey through a killer’s mind, presented as a near stream-of-consciousness narration so that the segues from one subject to another occur in such a way it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate the real from the unreal, what is actually happening, from Harms’ ruminations and recollections ... Readers will no doubt feel a surprising sympathy for the characters in this story, then remind themselves of the crimes committed and have an immediate reversal of opinion. Some may question whether the isolation into which these men are placed makes them worse as it causes their thoughts to fester in minds blank with boredom, to keep returning to the one thing they’re certain of: their crimes. Nevertheless, the emotion evoked by this story will remain tucked away in the heart, in the form of dismaying pity, that, through heredity, environment, or both, the minds of some individuals can make them so cruelly inclined to their fellow beings.
Prepare to be appalled — by Thomas Rayfiel; Ethan Harms, his creation; or yourself, for falling for him ... It is tempting to read the entire novel as an extended metaphor — a temptation that Ethan encourages... And yet, he is no more capable of transcending the flesh and desires that define him than is Shakespeare’s Richard II ... What a reader has to come to terms with in this novel is how much of humanity Ethan Harms represents. Are we to align ourselves with the flesh and desires of his familiar prison — or can we cling to the fiction that the prison is all of his own making, his alone, his manatee?
Harms’ Way is a seductive, almost lulling slide into the mind of a man capable of both great and terrible things. It’s a puzzle box of a book that is at once elegant and disturbing, especially once you get to the denouement and all the pieces fall into place. Thomas Rayfiel has written a compelling character study that is unafraid to indict a correctional system that not only fails to offer any attempt at rehabilitation but is all too open to corruption and further violence. It’s probably one of the best fictional depictions both of criminal insanity and American prison life that I’ve ever encountered and just a terrific read overall.
Rayfiel’s novel blends the pulpy with the philosophical as it tells the story of the isolated life of an imprisoned murderer ... the tone wavers somewhat, and some suggestions late in the novel that Ethan may have experienced hallucinations—and thus may not be the most reliable of narrators—add an unwelcome layer of ambiguity to the proceedings. At times, the novel seems interested in exploring the toxic masculinity and broken upbringings of its characters and the horrific consequences of their actions; at others, it opts for a more grindhouse approach. Rayfiel’s novel creates an ominous sense of the evil that men are capable of doing, but its tonal shifts sometimes trip it up along the way.