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Locked away

Coventry by Joseph Bathanti. Novello Festival Press, 2006. 261 pages.

When 30-year-old Calvin Gaddy finds himself working as a guard in Coventry Prison, he is plagued by the memory of the promise he had made to his mother: that he would never follow his father MacGregor Gaddy’s example and become a prison guard – especially since the aging, retired “Mac” had become a legend at Coventry due to his reputation for cruelty.

Finally forced to retire, the aging Mac is haunted by visions of taunting demons (the souls of former prisoners) who speak to him from his fireplace where he spends his nights drinking and talking to spirits. During the day he works on a stone wall between his farm and an encroaching housing development (which Mac views as an demonic invasion).

Ah, but life has a way of forcing concessions. Elizabeth Mac Gregor is now dead (struck by lightning) and Calvin is living in a trailer on his father’s land with his pregnant wife, Rachel. Facing a host of new responsibilities, Calvin dreams of building his own home – that means he needs a stable job with health and retirement benefits. Despite his promise to his mother, Calvin applies for a position as a guard at Coventry.

As Calvin adjusts to his duties, he gradually shifts from a lackadaisical, pot-smoking employee to a man who views his job as a “calling.” Confronted with the suffering and despair of life’s “throwaways,” he begins to view the prison as a metaphor for human existence, and his father’s oft-quoted credo, “You’re either a convict or a guard, one,” makes him mindful of his role as an agent of discipline and order.

When he witnesses casual acts of bestial cruelty, he becomes increasingly convinced that Coventry demands an unquestioning loyalty to the enforcement of a system of implacable rules – and he must learn to perform his duty with a pitiless detachment.

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Ironically, Calvin also perceives paradox and revelation in Coventry even as he witnesses its worst horrors. At times, he senses a kinship with the prisoners and even fantasizes about exchanging roles – he can easily imagine himself entering the lock-up while “Pitch,” one of Coventry’s most intractable inmates, returns to Calvin’s trailer – and his wife. In effect, Calvin understands that there is little difference between the guards and the prisoners.

One of the Coventry’s worst abominations is a prisoner called “Frank” , because his grotesquely burned features remind others of Boris Karloff in the film, “Frankenstein.” A “life to die” prisoner, Frank gradually undergoes a mysterious transformation. Castrated, imprisoned, defiled and mutilated, Frank becomes a servile convict who, in addition to helping Gaddy capture runaways, endures daily abuse and humiliation.

When Frank finally dies, his tragic existence seems to represent the epitome of a meaningless, wasted life; yet Coventry’s prisoners conduct a funeral (near the prison’s garbage dump) that appears to confer a kind of sainthood on Frank.

Then, there is Pitch, Coventry’s “warlock” who can evoke terror in both prisoners and guards with an onion and a bit of rag. After driving a brutal guard named Thrake to suicide, the enigmatic Pitch turns his attention to Calvin. The baffled young man asks his father for advice — how should he deal with a warlock’s curse? Mac notes that a man of evil intent has as much power as his victim is willing to give him. Armed with this dubious knowledge, Calvin moves toward a fateful encounter that will alter the fate of all he knows and loves. Finally, when Coventry’s kitchen burns, 30 hapless prisoners are trapped in an inferno that rivals the horrors of a hell by Hieronymus Bosch. In the aftermath of a fire that cleanses and annihilates, Calvin’s world seems to flicker between the surreal and the real.

Although this novel functions as a straightforward tale of Calvin’s struggle to come to grips with the violence and cruelty inherent in Coventry (and the morality of all prisons), Bathanti demonstrates an impressive skill in telling his story. The narrative occasionally “changes gears,” and Coventry’s “point of view” shifts. The reader perceives the world through Calvin’s eyes, then Mac’s nightmarish vision, and even Pitch’s “otherworldly” delirium. What, then, is “reality”? Perhaps it is all of them.

For readers who are familiar with the arts in Southeast, Joseph Bathanti is a familiar name. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., Bathanti arrived in North Carolina in 1976 as a VISTA volunteer. (Joseph’s early work with prison inmates influenced his work for the next 30 years.) Among Bathanti’s achievements are four award-winning volumes of poetry; East Liberty, a novel which received the Carolina Novel award in 2001 and “Afomo,” a dramatic work which won the Wachovia Playwright’s Prize. At present, Bathanti is the Co-Director of the Visiting Writers Series at Appalachian State University and the Guest Editor of “The Cold Mountain Review.” The novel, Coventry (the subject of this review) has received the Novello Literary Award for 2006.

In a recent interview with the author, Smoky Mountain News asked Bathanti about the autobiographical, historic and literary details of Coventry.

SMN: One of the most striking aspects of Coventry is the language. The descriptive details teem with vivid imagery and metaphor. Is it fair to say that when a poet writes a novel, he remains a poet?

JB: I think that the poet, even when writing prose, in this case fiction, holds tight to poetic language when setting up a narrative. I think we’ve been made to believe that the craft of fiction and poetry are mutually exclusive, but that’s simply not true — especially as the genres these days tend to bleed into each other. It seems also that the trend is for poets to invade fiction, writing novels and stories, rather than fiction writers embarking on careers in poetry. It’s interesting to point out that Faulkner’s and Hemingway’s first books were poems. When I write prose, I’m interested in employing the same compression and musicality that invest poetry. I think it’s possible to do this and still drive a discursive narrative.

SMN: On a second reading of Coventry, I noted that when the point of view shifts, “reality” changes. Pitch really escapes and invades Calvin’s trailer when the event is seen through Mac’s eyes. The escape never takes place when viewed through Calvin’s eyes. Would you please comment?

JB: I suppose as much as anything, I wanted to get across the demonic nature of prisons in general — that they possess lives of their own. That they are haunting and powerful and that reality, as a fixed point on a chart, does not exist. I use a fellow like Mac – hard as nails and not one to go in for spirits and the inexplicable, etc. (and Thrake too) — as the lens for how a prison, if one spends too much time in it, embodies a parallel reality. If one believes in its power, then reality becomes a rather fluid term. Hence Mac’s devils and Thrake’s haunting. One might write off what happens to Mac and Thrake as mental illness, but it’s something even more pernicious than insanity. It’s diabolical. It strikes me that prisons and the death penalty and our conventions of punishment and retribution and judgment are close to what hard-shell Christians are talking about when they discuss the Devil’s hold on the planet — though, as a culture, we have endorsed horrifying futile punishment as righteous and even effective. I would not say the Devil is behind drugs and alcohol and fornication, etc. But I see old Scratch perched gloatingly at the pinnacle of the prison empire we’ve established in this country, an increasingly lucrative empire for those who stand to profit from it. It’s absolutely our most visible monument to evil. What one believes is what is real.

SMN: Would you agree that Coventry is an example of the Southern Gothic Tradition?

JB: I surely hope that it is. The two Southern writers I have been most profoundly influenced by are Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. I wanted Flannery’s sense of Catholic rectitude in the novel, her crisp, no-nonsense, clear-eyed declarative sentence. But I also wanted the dreamy impressionistic air of Faulkner, though I wish to be clear that I do not league myself with these geniuses. It was a kind of nod to Flannery to make my prison chaplain a Catholic priest, and also a reflex I simply can’t quell.

SMN: To what extent did your VISTA experience influence this novel?

JB: Coventry is not an autobiographical novel. Yes, of course I embezzled liberally from things I saw and heard while working as a VISTA in a number of prisons in the South Piedmont area, and then later, up until now, dipping in to do short stints teaching creative writing workshops in prisons here and there around North Carolina. What I saw and felt initially as a 23 year old, fresh from his mom’s kitchen in Pittsburgh, on a prison yard, became the initial impulses to write about prisons: the sheer unearthly inexplicable phenomena that it embodies. For me there was no better place to land than a prison. I wanted to write, but nothing terribly dramatic had happened to me. Prison is filled with hyperaction 24 hours a day: inimitable characters, unimaginable conflict and crisis (though little in the way of resolution) constant danger and mayhem, unearthly settings, plots, and points of view — of the keepers and kept alike. Wow! Right there before your eyes. So, I was handed a narrative and I couldn’t get it all down quickly enough. Then of course, thankfully, I began to mature as writer and, finally, though over the years I’ve published essays and poems and stories about prison, I was able to write the novel about prisons I had all along wanted to write and in the way I wanted to write it: Coventry.

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