Thursday, October 9, 2008

Scary Story

Jack Gantos writes, in Hole In My Life , about his part, at the age of 19 or 20, in a hashish-smuggling operation and how he was arrested. He describes life in prison and tells about how he started learning the craft of writing.

It's a craft he does very well. I reread the book this week, and found myself rooting for young Jack. Even though I knew what was going to happen, as I read I was thinking, "No, don't do that."

I noticed more, this second time through the book, the books Gantos was reading then and some of the writers he admires: Graham Greene's The Comedians and Baudelaire's Artificial Paradise. So now I want to look at them, and others he mentions, too: On the Yard, Papillon, The Thief's Journal, and Seven Long Times. These four he calls "jail literature," which he was reading after his trial, while he waited three weeks to be sentenced.

Until its prohibition in 1937, doctors in this country prescribed Cannabis (hashish) "in sedative mixtures for neuralgia; migraine; hysteria; neurasthenia; (and) mental excitement." (The Merck Manual of Therapeutics and Materia Medica. 6th edition. p. 1307)

Since then, millions have been imprisoned and brutalized. Gantos writes that in prison, "hatred and despair, blood and drugs... surrounded me." When he was working in the prison hospital, "a man stumbled up to the clinic with a metal needle used to inflate basketballs shoved into the crook of his arm. He had taped the clear tube of a ballpoint pen to the threaded end of the needle, and on top of that he had fixed a tennis ball. He told me he cooked the dope, poured it into the pen tube, jammed the sharpened point of the needle into his arm, attached the tennis ball, and gave it a good squeeze. The air pressure was supposed to drive the dope down through the needle and into the vein. Only it didn't work out that way. He oversqueezed the tennis ball, the air rushed down the tube, through the needle and directly into his vein, and by the time I saw him he had a quivering ball of air trapped in a vein over his biceps. Fortunately he had a belt wrapped tightly around his upper arm cutting his circulation, or he would have been dead from an embolism. I was on duty and squeezed the air back down his vein toward the puncture in his elbow. It hissed and sprayed blood as it came out. I kneaded his arm over and over until I couldn't feel any bubbles.

"'You ready?' I asked, hoping there wasn't a bubble left that might lodge in his brain. He nodded and I unsnapped the tourniquet.

"He whimpered a quick prayer, then sat there still as a statue until he figured the danger had passed."

In prison, Gantos "began to think I wouldn't make it out and, like so many guys I had helped sew up, I would take the razor and begin to hack and slice at myself as only a madman would. It wasn't a new thought for me to think I might go insane, but I had always pushed the thought aside. This time the thought that I'd kill myself was unrelenting. As my hand began to shake I knew I was a moment away from hurting myself. I dove toward my cell door as if from the path of a speeding train. I shoved the razor out of the meal slot then dropped down and did push-ups until I couldn't do any more and lay there stretched out on the hard floor feeling the warmth of my body replaced by the cold of the concrete.

"By the time the count guard came by I was sitting on my bunk, half shaved and trying to will my shaking foot into a shoe."

So how did Jack Gantos start learning how to write like this? Keeping a journal helped. "I read the book (Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov) first. Then I began to record my own lines between his lines... I had plenty to write about.

"I set my journal up differently than I had my others. On each page I started writing between the lines and then broke out and wrote all crazy around the margins and every which way I could find some space so that it was all jumbled up. I tossed in everything I saw and thought and felt during the day and wrapped it all up with book quotes and prison slang and bits of wild conversation, and anything I thought was interesting..."

"My struggle as a writer was a lot like my life... I made up rules for myself and broke them and made others until I got it right."

In Hole In My Life he got it right.

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