Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hole in My Life - by Jack Gantos

Front Cover
Gantos’ memoir about his 15 months in a federal penitentiary for drug smuggling is a cautionary tale for young people, without the cheap philosophy. My husband James and I read this aloud together and had a hard time putting it down. (I probably should mention here that the fact that we’d recently met the author did enhance our enjoyment of this work.)

We alternately cringed at Gantos’ description of picking at his stress-induced acne

I discovered pools of oil and pus under my skin. They drove me into a frenzy. I went right at them. I squeezed down on the welts with my fingers while pressing up against them with my tongue. They exploded, and coils of yellow matter and blood streamed down my face.
And laughed at his adolescent naivety

My big romance of the year was a crush on my psychology teacher, Miss Hall. I’d sit in front of her desk and make troubled-brow faces which I thought illustrated the deep-level neurosis I represented…Finally I got up the nerve to write her a letter about becoming a psychology and literature major. I didn’t dare attempt a love letter – besides I didn’t have to. Any psychology teacher would know that a soul-baring letter from her most devoted student had hidden meaning.
I believe this book may represent two firsts for this blog: the first to mention prison libraries; and the first to refer to four different kinds of libraries (public, school, and academic, in addition to prison – and if you count “genetic library” there are five).

As for his high school library, Gantos mistakenly believes that hanging out there brooding will attract girls. He does not mention actually reading any books there. The library at the University of Florida is mentioned only in passing as part of Gantos’ self-tour of the campus - just another building among the dorms and classrooms. Of his public library on St. Croix he has only this to say
…the library was little help. It was so hot and humid inside I had to scrape the mold off the spines of the books in order to read the titles. Nine out of ten books I looked up were missing. The librarians just shrugged when I mentioned the apparent theft problem. And if I complained too much they just turned up their desk radios and played at being busy.
I am not sure he saw the irony in the fact that he wound up stealing public library property himself, thereby denying others information, as he is leaving Ft. Lauderdale and has the taxi stop at the library so he can look up a newspaper article about his accomplices getting caught, and “rip[s] the story out of the paper”.

It is never a bad idea to ask a librarian for assistance, and Gantos does when he asks the prison librarian for a copy of Barron’s Guide to the Colleges hoping he can get paroled by finding a college that will accept him as a student.

Gantos invokes the librarian stereotype as he describes his release and is given an opportunity to select some clothes from the discharge closet. Eschewing more daring duds, he takes “a plain pair of dark slacks, a white shirt with a button-down collar, and a jacket with patches on the elbows” and declares “I looked like a librarian.” Jack, you flatter us. Would that librarians actually dressed so dapper.

Destruction of library property once again comes back to haunt him upon his release from prison and he discovers he cannot take his copy of The Brothers Karamazov with him because the discharge officer notices the prison library seal on the inside jacket. He had been using the book as a clandestine journal, writing between Dostoyevsky’s lines. To be fair I don’t think he realized that he would not be able to keep the book since someone brought it to him during his first days in jail saying “do whatever you want with the books…they were left in the cafeteria.” He wraps up the work wondering what became of the journal and if others ever found it, and suggesting that “maybe the library will become filled with books with the trapped world of prisoners’ thoughts concealed between the lines.” I guess my hope is that perhaps, instead, the inmates are now allowed to keep proper journals, and the library books are left intact!

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