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Hole in My LifeReview - Hole in My Life
by Jack Gantos
Farrar Straus & Giroux , 2002
Review by Liz Bass
Apr 28th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 17)

What do you get if you mix the perspective of Holden Caulfield with the journalistic style of Ernest Hemingway, and add for good measure some Poe-like twists of doom and gloom, a dash of dread straight from the Heart of Darkness, and some harum-scarum On The Road adventures? The answer is this: You get Hole In My Life by Jack Gantos. And what a great read it is!

In the early seventies, Gantos spent nearly two years in jail for drug smuggling, but his memoir is not a "scared straight" story. The author leaves out the nannyisms and patronizing finger wagging, and instead tells a clean, well-lighted story that takes us from his junior year in high school through odd jobs and travels which lead him to New York's drug-infested underworld and finally prison. Redemption does follow it all, but it is not the puffed-up-all-full of-yourself variety. You can almost hear his huge sigh of relief as the story winds down. I made it, he seems to say. I made it, I made it, I made it. Whew!

Hole In My Life doesn't work as a cautionary tale because it paints an engaging picture of a young man living on his wits, unencumbered by parental restrictions, and always hopeful about the future. His adventures are so wild and even funny at times that he leaves the impression that the ride may have been worth the fall. In spite of everything that happened to him, Gantos knew he had a future. How did he know? Simple. He knew he could write and he knew it could save him. An expression of the time -- later, man-- suits Gantos to a tee. For him, there was always going to be a later. Not so for many of his contemporaries involved in the same illegal activities.

The cast of characters in this book is fabulous. We don't get to know any of them well except Gantos, and even he stays shielded from our gaze when he doesn't want us to know too much. For example, he starts the story in 1971 when he is nineteen, and says very little about what went before. What we do find out isn't too odd: there is an intact family of which he is a part. There is his father, whom he seems to care about. And there is his car, which he also cares about. So well-written are his adventures that we quickly stop trying to figure out what character deficiencies caused his fall. Whatever they were, he makes them seem unimportant. Instead, he pulls us into the a world inhabited by Davy Crockett's great-great-granddaughter who runs the King's Court motel in Ft. Lauderdale where he lives during his last year of high school. Then there is Rik, whom Gantos' father pegs as a drug smuggler right at the get-go. Gantos, to his later chagrin, gives Rik the benefit of the doubt and buys into his get-rich-quick scheme. There is Hamilton, skipper of the drug boat on which Gantos crews. There is the crew of an enormous Japanese fishing trawler who cheer for Gantos when he jumps into the ocean from the deck of their boat with a giant bottle of sake in his hands. Once in New York, and subsequently caught, there is Al E. Newman, Gantos' lawyer and Tepper, the dead-fish prosecutor working on his case. In prison, there are an assortment of bad guys including three from the Muslim Brotherhood who approach Gantos with an offer he can refuse.

Studded throughout the narrative are references to books and movies which in a less competent writer's hands could be dismissed as gratuitous name-dropping. In Gantos' book, the strategy works. Why not mention Key Largo and Hemingway when you're talking about South Florida? Why not talk about Dostovevsky when the subject is prison? Why not mention writers who spent time at the Chelsea Hotel in New York where Gantos stayed? Don't Mark Twain, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Nelson Algren have something to do with Gantos' view of the world? And why not mention Oscar Wilde when you are talking about mistakes and redemption? Isn't that what this book is all about?

In the end, Gantos is able to move from being able to write to becoming a writer. Hole In My Life is just as much about closing that gap as it is about spending time in prison. In addition to that, I suspect that somewhere in the backstory there is a father-son thing going on which is another part of the hole in his life. I think Gantos knows more about how all these elements work together than he is willing to tell, and that's all right. I applaud him anyway for writing such an interesting book which thankfully omits the preachy message: Don't let this happen to you.

© 2002 Liz Bass

Liz Bass is a retired teacher and principal. She is the Mayor of a small city in Northern California.


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