My thanks to Arnold Shapiro for the following review he wrote about my novel, copies of which are available at www.talespress.com or at Amazon. (Posted with permission.)
Realism, rich dialogue and memorable characters
make novel about the flaws of incarceration read more like a memoir
My hope in writing this review is that readers will want to buy this book. I enthusiastically recommend it for several reasons.
Most novelists begin a book because they have a good story to tell and/or they have strong, memorable characters around which to craft a compelling story. Ray Elliott has both, but adds a third important motivation: that many non-violent convicts don’t belong in prison and that sending them into incarceration only weakens their chance upon release of staying straight.
Elliott could have taken his position and evidence and written an exposé book or persuasive magazine article. Instead, he chose to make his point through fiction and some memorable characters. I think Elliott chose the most effective medium by writing this novel, “With the Silent Knowledge.”
We follow the main character, Michael Callahan, a young man who is an alcoholic and a forger – each condition making the other possible. We see “Chip” Callahan during his one-year bit inside an Illinois maximum-security prison for the third time, and then after his release. But here’s what’s so remarkable about this novel:
Callahan’s time in prison, and everything he experiences, thinks and feels, is so realistic that I felt like I was reading an actual, engaging memoir, not a novel. Ray Elliott describes prison life so accurately that everything he wrote feels like it must have really happened to some inmate, somewhere.
I can verify the realism of Ray Elliott’s story and the crazy journey of Chip Callahan. I spent a great deal of time inside a maximum-security prison in the 1970s (the time period of this novel) when I was researching and then producing, directing and writing the Oscar and Emmy Award-winning television documentary, “Scared Straight,” and more recently, as the executive producer of the A&E documentary series, “Beyond Scared Straight,” which took me inside dozens of prisons and jails. In terms of what prisons are really like, there is little fiction in the descriptions and occurrences in this fictional story.
Part of the harsh reality and believability of the story is due to the rich use of dialogue – more dialogue than the average novel and – interestingly – more erudite than most people speak.
Michael Callahan is very intelligent, glib and well spoken. There are many words in the dialogue that elevate the conversations such as “oblisk,” “asymptotically” or “picayunish.” The dialogue is so colorful and often witty because Callahan is so smart, outspoken and unfiltered:
To Callahan: “Did you hear that Otto died?”
Callahan: “Whatever did he do that for?”
The person with whom he has countless dialogue sparring matches is a young counselor at the prison, Jim Blaine. In fact, Callahan’s story is being told to us by Blaine nearly 50 years after it happened in the 1970s. We’re actually reading a story within a story – book-ended by Blaine’s commentary about the failures and flaws of incarceration – especially of non-violent, often addicted offenders who could truly be changed and rehabilitated elsewhere, by other means than confining them to a prison filled with far worse negative, violent offenders.
Your sympathy for or empathy with Callahan will be based on your attitude about and knowledge of alcoholism. Callahan is certainly charismatic and likable, smart and perceptive. But he’s also self-destructive. Don’t try to anticipate what is going to happen next and what will come out of Callahan’s intelligent but uninhibited and smart-ass mouth. I found myself rooting for him to make parole and then to succeed on the outside. I could not stop reading the last 45 pages to find out what happened to Callahan once he was released from prison.
Our journey with Callahan during his one-year behind bars is enlightening, shocking, tragic, amusing at times, and always unpredictable. And, throughout the book, there is even some poetry!
This is a powerful book in terms of its story, its characters, and its underlying message for all of us who live in this society where more people are incarcerated than any other country in the world, and with a recidivism rate that is shamefully and dangerously high.
I hope you will enjoy and benefit from reading “With the Silent Knowledge” as much as I did. Yes, it’s a novel, but to reiterate: It reads like an engaging memoir.
– Arnold Shapiro
Oscar and 16-time Emmy Award-winning television producer