NINETY-NINE per cent of the time in prison consists of waiting around, bored, as Carlo Gebler observes via his narrator, Wing orderly ‘Chalky’ Chalkman, who is in charge of sundry duties — preparing breakfast for warders and making up welcome packages for new inmates at Loanend prison in Northern Ireland.
New Island Books, €9.95
The other one per cent, adds Chalky, is “just stupid, vicious bollocks”.
Gebler is known as a novelist and filmmaker — his mother is the writer Edna O’Brien, and he has also written a powerful memoir of his father, Ernest Gebler.
For most of the last quarter century he has worked with prisoners, teaching creative writing in HMP Maze in the 1990s and subsequently becoming writer-in-residence at HMP Maghaberry.
This accounts, at least in part, for the striking authenticity of his prose.
The interconnected jail stories in the book tend to putter along, immersed in the tedium of day-to-day prison life.
In this they mimic the 99% described by Chalkman — mundane conversations, bad jokes, ritual humiliations, stodgy food, and regular interactions between cons and screws.
Then, every so often, the one per cent effect kicks in: the yarns take a sudden heartbreaking lurch into more dangerous territory, where the stupidity and viciousness has tragic proportions.
The stories, many of them first published as stand-alone pieces in magazines and anthologies, gradually build up a web of connections.
Characters other than Chalky recur: a warder named Hayes who is marginally more humane than most, and a couple of drug-dealing heavies nicknamed the ‘evil twins’.
Everyone has a nickname, usually a blatantly obvious one: ‘Magic’ for a man named Johnson, or ‘Smurf’ for a prisoner named Murphy.
Prison stories, of course, have a huge history and a lot of hinterland. From Genet to The Green Mile and from Dumas to The Shawshank Redemption, we’ve heard the stories, seen the movies, absorbed the shocks and the stereotypes.
Compared to the classics of the form, Gebler is content with a small canvas and a quietly industrious realism peppered with lurches into brutality.
Though the stories are set in a fiction prison, there are a few political references.
Some of the inmates are, or were, republican or loyalist hard men — though in this post-ceasefire landscape they have mostly been sent back inside for bouts of domestic insanity.
Gebler has written elsewhere of his discovery that good fiction works like a set of dominos, where the first one to fall knocks over its neighbour, and the second knocks the third, and so on.
It is quite a subtle effect: each of the tales has enough narrative impetus to stand on its own, but together they are more than the sum of their parts.
Connections and resonances accrue with time. Character is revealed gradually, as we work our way past the formulaic evasions and self-protective masks worn by inmates.
One character, for example, is an open and trusting Sri Lankan nicknamed ‘Engine’, a former ship’s engineer.
When Chalky first encounters him he is struck by this openness and willingness to talk to anyone.
It does him little good: he runs afoul of the ‘evil twins’ and winds up as embittered and hardened as the others.
Chalky, observer and narrator, is an interstitial figure: his trick is to move between worlds.
His orderly duties give him contact with the prison officers, and a measure of mutual respect.
But he stays on the right side of the other prisoners by refusing to pass on information.
He is a somewhat lonely and isolated figure, grasping after occasional small friendships while ever wary of the potential danger of trusting others.
Gebler’s description of Chalky’s existence in jail is very delicately crafted, authentic-sounding, and accurate. But it is no mere chronicle: there is considerable artistry at work here, in the characterisation and the stop-start tempo of the narrative.
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