Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Another book worth reading.

I had a lot of time to kill yesterday, in a series of waiting rooms as I got my car fixed. I managed to read an entire book, what with all that waiting around. It's another book by a Canadian author, Morley Callaghan, called More Joy In Heaven. It's a great book, and it's short enough that you can read it in three hours in car fix-it shop waiting rooms. It's based (loosely) on a true story from Toronto in the 1930s, when a notorious bank robber named Red Ryan was released from the Kingston pen thanks to a substantial effort from a number of politicians and became something of a media darling in Toronto. The medai loved his turnaround from bad guy to productive member of society, and he became something of an official "greeter" at a local Toronto hotel, the Nealton, which was looking to capitalize on his local-celebrity status. Much like the former heavyweight champs who work as "greeters" in Vegas. The difference being that local-celebrity status will get you recognized for a few weeks, while being a former heavyweight champ will get you recognized for years.

Ten months after being released from prison a "changed man", Red Ryan was shot to death during a liquor store robbery in Sarnia, and the former toast-of-the-town became an enormous letdown to the people of Toronto. More Joy In Heaven, while not a factual account of Ryan's time out of prison, is a fanciful version of his story featuring a character named Kip Caley. Caley is a man who has really changed his ways in prison. He's reformed, he's become a better person, and he has become a liason between the criminals in the prison and the officials on the outside, trying to improve their situation and conditions, working toward their release, and generally being an upstanding citizen. Thanks to help from a philanthropic yet morally ambiguous senator and a saintly prison priest, Caley gets an early release.

He becomes the greeter at a hotel, just like Ryan, but the rest of the story is invented. Two characters from his prison past never leave him alone the whole time he's out, trying to tempt him back into a life of crime. (These two - especially the through-and-through evil Foley, are pretty cartoonish.) The owner of the hotel is clearly exploiting Caley, in his own way, but Caley seems to believe that the ends justify the means, and he hopes that this hotel gig will lead to an appointment on the parole board, where he will be able to continue the good work he was doing in jail. He also believes he's doing good work at the hotel, entertaining people with stories of robberies and money, and counselling police and criminals alike. But of course it can't last.

There are many Christian religioius allegories in the book, most notably the story about the prodigal son. More Joy in Heaven makes several references to Caley being the prodigal son of the city, most of them by Caley and his kindly priest. There are also references to Lazarus and of course the title itself refers to the biblical notion that there is more joy in heaven upon the repentance of one sinner than upon 99 just people who need no repentance. The biblical passage is referenced once, by the priest, when he suggests that maybe Caley believes there is more joy on Earth than there is in Heaven. Some of these references - and other metaphors like Caley being trapped in a series of "cages" feel pretty cartoonish and heavy-handed, but overall that tone of heavy-handedness really works for the book. It's tough to explain, but Caley himself has a very heavy hand and isn't exactly sophisticated, so the book seems to mirror his tone.

Anyway. Before I write a full book report, print it out double spaced, make sure it's 5,000 words, and mail it to my 9th grade English teacher Mr. MacGregor. This is a great Canadian read. Morley Callaghan's More Joy In Heaven. Pick it up.

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