When I was in middle school, our class read Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza series. They’re about Joey Pigza, a boy with ADHD, and the books are funny while also having the ability to say something about an event or a moment or a feeling in a way that feels like it hasn’t been done before. I was reminded of these books in 2011, when I went to a screening of a documentary Library of the Early Mind, a movie that is comprised of interviews with children’s book authors. Jack Gantos really stole the movie (although he had stiff competition from Daniel Handler!) when he talked about the circuitous route that led him to writing books for children, much of which is replicated in his memoir Hole in My Life, that follows through his stay in prison as a young man and the events that brought him there. The novel was also a Prinz Honor Book, and versions of the novel include Gantos’ mug shot and a note, “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.”
Gantos’ narrative moves back and forth through time, beginning with the above sentence before removing the narrative to Gantos’ junior and senior years of high school, where he bounced between living in different places including with his family, family friends, and in a motel room that he rented on his own. He started doing drugs and drinking in his newfound independence, but most of all, this time includes Gantos reflecting on the books that he was reading at the time, the way that they made him feel, and how they affected his experience. During this time, he was writing down ideas: “book ideas came to me in full-color flashes, like bits of a film remembered, or a forgotten conversation suddenly pulsing to life. These were the great notions of sprawling novels that jolted me awake in the middle of the night or sneaked up on me as I drove my car so that I’d scrawl them on the white vinyl of the front seat next to my leg.”
The transition from idea to story came when he moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. There, Gantos was recruited by a man named Rik to captain a small boat to an island, dig up two thousand pounds of hash, and get the boat to New York City for a ten thousand dollars cash compensation. Hearing Gantos speak candidly about this in Library of the Early Mind rivals the narrative telling of it. Gantos enters the adventure in the way that he recognizes a character entering a story:
“It was not lost on me that so many writers had gone to sea, and for them, setting off to cross the water was the same as setting down to fill the pages with their adventures. Before leaving I had gone to a used bookstore and selected every title I could find which had something to do with the sea. I had Billy Budd, Martin Eden, Treasure Island, Heart of Darkness, The Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe, and the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy. I was armed with books the way the navy goes to sea armed to the teeth. I figured these books would have to live with me as cabin companions since Hamilton was so snappish. But I didn’t mind. I wanted to write while sailing, and I was more than willing to come under the spell of books.”
Hamilton, Gantos’ traveling companion, seems a man best avoided, yet Gantos has to live on a small boat with him for the weeks that it takes to get to New York. And when they arrive in New York, things fall apart, the two men are caught, and Gantos finds himself carted off to prison.
It is here that he begins to write, between the lines on the pages of a prison library book. Lucky to get a job in the prison as an X-ray technician, Gantos is able to move out of the normal prison which kept him out of the trouble that caused the injuries he saw in the prison hospital. All throughout the novel Gantos tries to insert himself into a story that will give him something to write about, but, once in prison, he understands that the material was there all along.
If anything, this novel is a reminder of the importance of story, both Gantos’ personal story and the narratives and potential for stories that came out of it. From the canonical and contemporary novels that are referenced throughout the novel, and Gantos’ reading of them, to his own writing that takes place, to his emulation and replication of the characters in the books that he reads, stories are inset within stories throughout Hole in My Life. Gantos shows himself to be an expert storyteller, finding narrative in all things.