Frontlines

The new winner: Con Lit

Merilyn Read April 30 1979
Frontlines

The new winner: Con Lit

Merilyn Read April 30 1979

The new winner: Con Lit

PORTRAIT

Merilyn Read

Roger Caron began to write his Governor-General’s Awardwinning book, Go-Boy!, in the Kingston pen in December, 1963, using

jelly beans. He had been in solitary confinement for a year. The guards on the catwalk above him were giving him trouble, and the isolation was driving him crazy. That year, the Salvation Army had given each inmate a bag of jelly beans for Christmas. Caron sat cross-legged on the floor of the cell and spelled out words like CREEP and JERK with the colored candy. The guards couldn’t prove that he was aiming the insults at them, so for five days Caron kept spelling away. Then, while he was gone for his weekly shower, the goon squad (guards armed with clubs) came and confiscated the jelly beans. Caron realized right there that words were more powerful than fists.

Nevertheless, when Roger Caron heard that he had won this year’s Governor-General’s Award for literature, he was ecstatic—then, very depressed. He couldn’t believe that a Grade 7 dropout who had spent 24 of his 41 years behind bars could win the country’s top literary award. He thought the panel of judges at the Canada Council who chose

Go-Boy! from among 250 titles as the best nonfiction book published in 1978 had made a mistake. Good news, for Caron, usually turned out to be some kind of mistake.

A year ago, when Caron (inmate No.

9033) was at Collins Bay serving 16 years for bank robbery and jailbreak, he was told by prison administrators on a Friday that he had been granted parole and would be released the following Tuesday. In true inmate tradition he started giving away his personal belongings, including his precious swivel chair. But the release never happened. On Monday he was told it had all been a mistake and that he would be at Collins Bay for another four months. The four months turned out to be six.

So it took several phone calls to convince Caron that the book he had written for personal therapy when all else had failed had won him not only a chance at freedom in the outside world, but a national literary honor and $5,000 in prize money.

In the introduction to Go-Boy!, Pierre Berton describes Caron as a “multitime loser,” a guy who since the age of 16 had served time in all the major peni-

tentiaries in Eastern Canada—Guelph, Kingston,

Collins Bay, Millhaven, St.

Vincent de Paul, Stony Mountain, Dorchester and Penetanguishene, where the criminally insane are

institutionalized.

Go-Boy fis prison slang for a runner; it’s what the inmates chant when someone makes a break for freedom. Caron was a go-boy 13 times: six escapes were successful. But as a career convict, Berton was right. Roger Caron was a loser.

According to Caron, life began to slide downhill when he was still a toddler. Born into a poor French-Canadian

family in Cornwall, Ontario, he was one of 13 kids. His father was the biggest bootlegger in town, a man who justified his trade by turning over 20 per cent of his earnings to the Catholic Church. “Everybody in my family possessed volcanic tempers and were so opinionated that sometimes their arguments bordered on madness.”

Until he was 8, he was plagued by nightmares that left him physically sick and by the time he was 11 he was a “sulky rebellious loner.” “I felt a tremendous drive to do something shocking; the more people bad-mouthed me, the worse I got. Soon everybody was predicting my doom, saying I was going to die at the end of a rope like a notorious bandit.”

From then on, Caron says, he lived out other people’s expectations. This led him in October, 1954, at the age of 16 to a cell at Guelph reformatory for a fumbled attempt to break into a sporting goods store in Cornwall.

Conflicts with prison staff, mingled with escape attempts, actual breakouts, robberies, new sentences and more confinement became the story of his life. By the time he was 21, Caron had no intention of going straight. “If someone hit me, I hit back. My fists were like two demented playmates with a mind and a temper of their own.” Caron says his only ambition was to become a better robber, so that one day he could commit a million-dollar score “to prove to the system I wasn’t a loser.”

At 18, he picked up some books from the library at the Kingston pen and be-

came enthralled with the feats of Sir Edmund Hillary and Jacques Cousteau. The basic theme was always the same: man versus the elements. Caron soon adopted a Jesse James vision of himself; he was going to be remembered by people as one of the greatest bank robbers of all time. Perhaps the closest he ever came to emulating James was in 1972,

when he broke out of the Brockville jail where he was being held for a bank holdup. Armed with a wooden revolver, he locked up three guards, rifled the jail’s safe, then drove into New York state in a stolen Volkswagen. There he and an accomplice robbed a bank. When his accomplice was arrested, and the stolen money retrieved, Caron slipped back across the border to Toronto where the Metro police gave his Jesse James act the hook.

At the trial following his Toronto arrest, he heard the judge and Crown attorney describe him as “a criminal psychopath ... a hopeless case.” Caron was an official product of Canada’s penal system.

During his 24 years inside, Caron sampled some of the most barbaric rehabilitation techniques this country’s penal system had to offer in the 1950s. The Limbo Room at Guelph consisted of a wall with “a mass of metal tubing contoured to embrace a human form and, affixed to it, shackles and restraining straps” where three leather straps whipped the flesh from the victim’s naked buttocks. In February, 1955, Roger Caron took his turn in the Limbo Room. The Chinese cell at Kingston, “a special, barren, cold cell designed to make a con feel so lonely that he just wanted to die.” Then there were the

electric shock treatments and experiments with gas, after which he “smashed all the windows in my room with my hands and head and put my face through the glass.” But perhaps worse than the physical torture were the years spent in solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water, in a cold, damp cell, with a concrete slab for a bed,under the glare,day and night, of a 200-watt bulb. It was here in solitary, after he learned the power of a few words spelled out on his cell floor, that Go-Boy! began.

He filled scribbler after scribbler with words uninterrupted by commas, periods or paragraphs. When he was transferred to Stony Mountain, the scribblers went with him. “The most travelled and unwanted prisoner in the country,” or “Mad Dog Caron,” as he was known to the press, was then removed to St. Vincent de Paul near Montreal. It was here, in the winter of 1968-69 that the manuscript was typed, all 1,800 pages of it.

The book had become his umbilical cord and when he re-entered Kingston in 1971 for conspiracy to rob, he kept at it until the infamous riot of April 14, 1971. For four days, the army surrounded the building while 14 “undesirables” (rapists and child molesters) and six guards were held hostage inside by the prisoners. Two of the undesirables were killed; 12 others mutilated. Caron took his hulking manuscript, wrapped it in plastic marked “Manuscript Only” and carried it around with him during the siege. At one point, he hid it under one of the dead inmates. After the riot was brought under control he was forced to hand his manuscript over at the point of a bayonet. What had taken him 10 years to write was then tossed into a pile of garbage, and Caron was packed off to Millhaven. More than a month later, one of the teachers who had worked at the Kingston pen was standing in the doorway of his cell with the manuscript in his hand, having found it under a pile of prison refuse at the Kingston city dump. Caron said he felt like a mother being handed back her kidnapped child.

Caron had sent Go-Boy! (still in a primitive state) to Doubleday and McClelland and Stewart in 1968-69. It was rejected. After much rewriting and condensing he shipped it off to MacMillan in 1973. Again rejection. “The editor

in charge said it was a terrific story but I was only another con ... a nobody.” So Caron found a somebody to stand behind him—Pierre Berton. He wrote a short letter addressed simply to “Pierre Berton, Toronto” in August, 1975. Berton has corresponded with Caron ever since. Berton suggested his publisher—Jack McClelland. The second time around they were more or less in favor of going ahead—until the decision was vetoed by then editor-in-chief Anna Porter. Berton advised him to keep trying. McGraw-Hill Ryerson gave an affirmative answer in 1976 and Go-Boy! underwent considerable rewriting and editing to reduce 900 pages to a readable 260.

When Go-Boy! appeared in bookstores last April Caron received his copies in his medium-security cell at Collins Bay. His mandatory release was set for 1983; however, he says it was GoBoy! that got him out last Dec. 19.

For a year before that, he had been out part-time on a pre-release program which allowed him to live in a halfway house in Hull three days every two weeks and to work in an upholstery factory. His time on the outside was gradually extended until Caron now calls his brightly decorated bedroom on the third floor home.

When he’s not answering fan mail (an average of eight letters a day) he lifts weights in the basement and goes for late-night jobs. By this month Go-Boy! has sold 7,000 hard-cover copies, earning Caron over $12,000 in royalties. There’s also a French edition. An English paperback is scheduled to come out soon and a film may be in the offing. But despite the commercial activity surrounding his book, Caron isn’t allowed to spend over $200 without asking permission. So he bought a 10speed bike instead of the secondhand car he really wants. Craving color after 24 years of black and grey, he splurged on flowered sheets and an orangestriped bedspread for his bed as well as a stereo and some camera equipment. If all goes well, he’ll be able to get his own apartment sometime next fall, but even then Caron is expected to report to the police and his parole officer every two weeks for nine years.

Although he shares their midnight curfew, Caron doesn’t have to work in a factory like the other ex-cons in the house. His tool is his typewriter. He’s contracted to McGraw-Hill Ryerson for a second book—Bingo!— about the 1971 Kingston riot, and after that he plans to start a novel based on the $3-million Brink’s robbery which happened in Montreal in 1976.

What’s left of the old Roger Caron —

or Anthony Randall, the pseudonym he was known by inside? Not much, at least not on the surface, except that he still has an urge to battle the elements. So he parachutes: “As long as it scares me, I’m going to do it. Wouldn’t it be something if I had a failure after surviving 24 years of the Canadian penal system?”

Caron says he doesn’t drink or smoke. Yet he had to have a couple of glasses of white wine before the presentation on April 4 “just to calm down.” Roger Caron is in the red-and-white-striped “tent” room at Government House, squeezed sardine-like between fiction writer Alice Munro and poet Patrick Lane. He waits for his turn to receive the same award his friend Pierre Berton has won three times in the past. He has lost 20 pounds since getting out of Collins Bay but his spare frame looks trim, even handsome in navy blue blazer and light beige pants. Caron says he feels paranoid here and acutely aware of his status as an ex-con and public-school dropout. To remind himself of where he came from, he wears the blazer and pants he was issued when he left Collins Bay. He receives the award—a red leather-bound copy of Go-Boy!— from Governor-General Edward Schreyer. Then he breaks into a Mickey Mouse grin and clutches the book to his chest, before returning to his place in the lineup. Surrounded by family, friends and well-wishers, Roger Caron, still smiling, takes a quick glance over his shoulder “just to see if the hands are on the rug” waiting to snatch all this out from underneath him. r: