Jack Gantos - Hole in My Life

"Nobody would believe it. I couldn't. That's why I had to write it down." (p. 161)

"I didn't keep up my old habit of writing down my ideas for novels because it seemed unnecessary. I felt as if all the fictional ideas I cooked up were nothing compared to what was going on around me in real life." (p. 159)

Many of Gantos's books are written for fifth or sixth graders or thereabouts. Amazon says this one is for a "Young Adult." You aren't going to want your sixth grader to read this one, but it's an excellent choice and easy read for high schoolers or college-aged youth. Hole in My Life will be of special interest to aspiring authors and those who don't know what they want to do with their life yet. Gantos clearly shows how youth need to dictate what they want to do and where they want to go or life may lead them down a course to potential ruin.

In this entertaining and autobiographical account, Gantos tells us about his lack of a plan near the end of high school. It's a common situation, and one that may not work out for the best without a wake up call or degree of good luck. In Gantos's case, it works out for the worst. Inside, however, (at least in retrospect) there was a good kid, a driven kid, someone with intelligence and desire that merely needed to be focused. Hole in My Life is a fairy tale of sorts with the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, and a 'happily ever after' ending.

Hole in My Life is inspiring. Its message encourages taking control of yourself and your environment--not merely going with the flow of what your circumstances, friends, and family have dealt you. It fosters thinking critically about the potential consequences of actions before making decisions. If nothing else, it is an enjoyable read that includes insights into the passion of reading and writing, what those hobbies can do for someone, and how those writings can potentially influence others for the better.

from the publisher:

"All I heard was the number -- ten thousand dollars, cash. This was the jackpot. The answer I was looking for. My exit from St. Croix and my entrance to whatever good school would have me. I didn't think of the danger involved with breaking the law. I didn't even consider that I had no idea how to sail a large boat, or that Hamilton might kill me and dump my body off the coast of New Jersey -- that anything bad could happen. I just saw my exit from the island and entrance to my future, and it was glorious and good and calling me and there was no way I was going to get a better offer . . . 'Count me in,' I said, smiling. 'I'll go home and start packing.'"
In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer desperate for adventure, college cash, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents finally caught up to them in a bust at the Chelsea Hotel. For his part in the conspiracy, the twenty-year-old Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.

In Hole in My Life, this acclaimed author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one intense moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a smuggler, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos -- once he found himself locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell -- moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how this newfound dedication helped him endure the worst experience of his life.

Jack Gantos published his first children's book, Rotten Ralph, in 1976. He is the author of many subsequent adventures in this picture-book series as well as Jack on the Tracks: Four Seasons of Fifth Grade and three other books of semi-autobiographical stories. His second novel for children, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, was a National Book Award finalist, and the sequel, Joey Pigza Loses Control, was a Newbery Honor book. Jack Gantos lives with his wife and daughter in Boston, Massachusetts.

The following is an excerpt from the book Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos.

1 / look straight ahead

The prisoner in the photograph is me. The ID number is mine. The photo was taken in 1972 at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky. I was twenty-one years old and had been locked up for a year already -- the bleakest year of my life -- and I had more time ahead of me.

At the time this picture was taken I weighed 125 pounds. When I look at my face in the photo I see nothing but the pocked mask I was hiding behind. I parted my hair down the middle and grew a mustache in order to look older and tougher, and with the greasy prison diet (salted chicken gizzards in a larded gravy, chicken wings with oily cheese sauce, deep-fried chicken necks), and the stress, and the troubled dreams of capture and release, there was no controlling the acne. I was overmatched.

I might have been slight -- but I was smart and cagey. I managed to avoid a lot of trouble because I knew how to blend in and generally sift through the days unnoticed by men who spent the majority of their time looking to inflict pain on others. I called these men "skulls" and they were freaks for violence. Here we were, all of us living in constant, pissy misery, and instead of trying to feel more human, more free and unchained in their hearts by simply respecting one another and getting along, many of the men found cruel and menacing ways to make each day a walk through a tunnel of fear for others.

Fear of being a target of irrational violence haunted me day and night. The constant tempo of that violence pulsed throughout my body and made me feel small, and weak, and cowardly. But no matter how big you were, there was no preventing the brutality. I had seen the results of violence so often -- with guys hauling off and smashing someone's face with their fists or with a metal tool, a baseball bat, a rock -- and all for no other reason than some imagined offense or to establish a reputation for savagery. When I lived and worked in the prison hospital -- especially after I had become the X-ray technician -- I was part of an emergency medical response team. I was called on day and night to X-ray all types of ugly wounds to see if the bones behind the bruised or bleeding flesh had been cracked, chipped, or broken. As we examined them, the patients would be telling the guards, "I didn't even know the guy" or (my greatest fear) "I never heard 'em, never saw 'em."

It was this lottery of violence that haunted me. Your number could come up anywhere, anytime -- in the dark of night while you slept in a dormitory with a hundred other men, or in full daylight on the exercise field while you strolled in the sun. Once, in the cafeteria line, standing directly next to a guard, I watched a skinny black kid stab some other "blood" with a dinner fork. He drove it into the guy's collarbone so deep the doctor had to remove it with a pair of surgical pliers. AIDS wasn't a factor then. The blood that sprayed over the food trays was wiped off by the line workers and they kept spooning up our chow.

I wasn't raised around this level of violence. I wasn't prepared for it, and I've never forgotten it. Even now, when walking some of Boston's meaner streets, I find myself moving like a knife, carving my way around people, cutting myself out of their picture and leaving nothing of myself behind but a hole.

Like most kids, I was aware that the world was filled with dangerous people, yet I wasn't certain I could always spot them coming. My dad, however, was a deadeye when it came to spotting the outlaw class. He had never been in prison, but he always seemed to know who had spent time in the 'big house" or who was headed down that path.

In his own way he tried to warn me about going in their direction. When I was young, he would drive the family from Florida back to our hometown in western Pennsylvania to visit relatives. Once there, he'd troll the streets with me in our big Buick and point to guys he knew and tell me something wicked, or weird, or secret about them. "He killed a man with a pitchfork," Dad would say, nodding slyly toward some hulking farmer in bib overalls. "Look at his hands. He's a strong SOB -- could strangle the life out of a cow."

Or Dad would point to a woman. "She had a kid when she was in ninth grade and sold it to a neighbor." He knew it all. "He burned down a barn. He shot a cop. He robbed a bank." Dad went on and on. I was always surprised at how many people from such a small town had been in prison. And I was really surprised that after committing such despicable acts they were back out on the street. They were a scary-looking lot, misshapen, studded with warts and moles, and I was glad we were in the car. But not for long. He'd take me to the Elks Club, or the Am-Vets hall, or Hecla Gun Club in order to get up close and personal with some of the criminal class. He'd order a beer and get me a Coke and some sort of food treat that came out of a gallon pickle jar of beet-red vinegar -- a hard-boiled egg, or a swatch of pig's skin, or a hunk of kielbasa. Everything smelled like a biology specimen, and with the first bite the red juice spurted out and ran down my chin. I must have looked like I'd split my lip in a bar brawl. Then, once we were settled, Dad would continue to point out the criminals, all the while using his Irish whisper, which could be heard in the next town over. He pointed out bank robbers, church robbers, car thieves, and a shadowy "second floor" man, known for snatching jewelry from the bedrooms of sleeping homeowners. I began to imagine the entire town was some sort of bizarre experimental prison camp without walls -- a punishment center where criminals were sentenced to living only with other criminals.

Dad snapped his fingers. "These folks zigged when the rest of the world zagged. And once you cross that line, there's no coming back. Mark my words."

All this was my father's way of letting me know he was in the know -- he had the dirt on everyone, and it was the dirt that made them interesting. At the same time he made it clear they were damaged goods and could never come clean again. Dad's keen eye for spotting criminals of all stripes was impressive. But it wasn't perfect. He never had me pegged for being one of them.