A novel focuses on a North Carolina prison guard and his increasingly bleak life inside and outside penitentiary walls.
Calvin Gaddy works at Coventry Prison, just like his now-retired father, Mac. As Cal’s wife, Rachel, is pregnant with their first child, he plans to take the sergeant’s exam to boost his income. But Rachel is worried that Cal’s regular pot smoking will lead to trouble if he gets a drug test at Coventry. Still, he’s quietly coping with working at the prison, where some guards, like Mac of yesteryear, are violent with inmates. Jesse Thrake, one officer, is certain that prisoner and alleged witch doctor Tarl “Pitch” Benefit has been “witching” him. Sure enough, Thrake falls ill with vomiting and much worse until the day he inexplicably vanishes. Cal subsequently believes Pitch is cursing him as well, which only intensifies his perpetual concern over his pregnant wife. At the same time, complications at home and work exacerbate Cal’s quandary. The prison captain, for one, is having an affair with his secretary, which ultimately prompts a confrontation between the couple and one of their spouses. Meanwhile, Cal thinks his father is going crazy, as Mac, among other things, is seeing convicts’ faces in the dirt. Cal struggles to balance his life with Rachel and his punishing job. But he may not be prepared once tragedy at Coventry strikes, a tragedy that requires either the cool detachment of a prison guard or the compassion of a family man.
Bathanti’s (Brothers Like These, 2017, etc.) grim tale is steeped in religious allegory. Though this facet is sometimes too superficial, it often precipitates indelible imagery. For example, Cal’s dead mother, Elizabeth, was a churchgoer—unlike his prison-guard father. At one point, Cal envisions sitting with his mom after Sunday worship while on a table between them is Elizabeth’s Bible and Mac’s pistol. Similarly, the story aptly examines the fine line separating guards from inmates, as the former sometimes display brutality against men whose crimes are all but forgotten. Cal is incessantly conflicted between his roles as prison guard and devoted husband. Accordingly, parallelisms ensue: As Rachel carries new life, an imminent execution at Coventry assures another will end, and the story even equates an infant’s birth with a jailbreak. But in addition to the hard-hitting drama, the tale has shades of a thriller, dropping in a few surprises, such as more than one shocking death. There are moments of surrealism, too, particularly regarding Pitch and what he may or may not be capable of. Cal has a few unsettling dreams, but the narrative perspective from Pitch, while riveting, is relatively ambiguous. This plot thread results in a denouement that’s likewise open to interpretation. Bathanti recounts his story in a lyrical but appropriately somber prose: “Dead inmates…had been weighted, in the chain-gang days, with granite and dumped in the sump where their bones still ranged like white brittle fish waiting for time to turn them back into free men.”
This harrowing tale of a husband and father-to-be surrounded by violence remains both gloomy and enthralling.