There's something rather off-putting about a novel's being marketed on the basis of its author's physical appearance. As in: a giant photo of author Tim Willocks in all his redheaded, Raphaelite-curled splendor emblazoned on the reviewer's copy. As in: the jacket blurb boast ''Willocks looks like an Archangel and writes like the Devil.'' What makes this strategy even more annoying is that lurking behind those striking looks is a not-half-bad novelist who need not hawk his outward charms.
The title evokes a gentler book, like A River Runs Through It, but Green River Rising (Morrow, $23) is, in fact, a powerfully brutal, yet poetically achieved, novel about an uprising at an unusually sterile, vaguely futuristic prison in Texas called Green River. The warden, cheekily named Hobbes, is a manic-depressive psychological sadist who exacerbates the existing tensions in the facility, thereby helping to illustrate his famous namesake's theory that men will behave like beasts when left to their own devices. Meanwhile, the riot is ill-timed for the novel's protagonist, Richard Klein (a former orthopedic surgeon in for a rape that, we are assured, he didn't commit), since he is scheduled to be released the very next day.
An intellectual warden? An incarcerated surgeon? Some of Willocks' characters seem a tad contrived. Still, such improbable elements find a cockeyed home among all the institutionalized insanity. Besides, what fun it is to traipse through the belly of the beast, through bars and cell walls, to observe all sorts of frightful happenings in all sorts of dreadful places with the inconspicuousness of a fly on the wall or, rather, a prison cockroach.
Willocks, a 38-year-old British psychiatrist, lets us eavesdrop in the prison clinic, where one patient tries to suffocate another because he's disturbed by the latter's raspy breathing; the lunch room, where a serial killer issues a mortal challenge to our hero by swiping his Jell-O; and the supply room, where crew chief Nev Agry, the baddest inmate of all, coaxes two sociopaths into helping him initiate the riot, the spark of which is Agry's love for his male prison ''wife.''
Okay, fun isn't the right word for this bumpy and, it turns out, very fiery trip through hell. But, as all too vividly rendered by Willocks, it is a fascinating journey a sentence well worth serving, you might say. B+