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Standing guard – ‘Barker House’

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The notion of crime and punishment has long been a subject of artistic expression. Those who commit misdeeds and those tasked with exacting retribution for those misdeeds allow for a wealth of character and thematic exploration. A society’s treatment of those it imprisons often serves as an effective lens through which to view the rest of that society.

Those grand ideas writ small are what make up “Barker House” (Bloomsbury, $26), the debut novel-in-stories of David Moloney. Through a series of interconnected looks at some of the corrections officers at a New Hampshire prison over the course of one year on the job, Moloney explores some of the grim realities of mass incarceration. By delving into these people on an individual level, he assembles a broader and much more vivid picture of the system as a whole.

What makes this book compelling – and it really is compelling – are those extended character studies. We learn about these people and what makes them tick. We find out about the circumstances that landed them in this job and the motivations that keep them there. There are rookies and lifers, each with their own ideas about how this job works. Some seek to better the system, others are content to simply get along.

And all the while, the machine grinds on … and the prisoners are not the only grist for the mill.

Here’s the fascinating thing – while there are clear distinctions between the handful of officers that flow through New Hampshire’s Barker County Correctional Facility, those differences are often worn away by the unrelenting and uncompromising system in which they operate. We meet these men and women – Tully, Mankins, Menser, O’Brien, Brenner, Big Mike and so on – and live their experiences alongside them. Each of them has their own reasons for holding this job and for doing it in the manner they choose. And yet, in ways both overt and subtle, they are fundamentally the same while on shift.

Think about that. The system demands that the individuality of the prisoner be removed – same uniforms, numbers instead of names. And yet, it seems as though those same demands are made of the men and women who stand guard as well. It’s one of the many thought-provoking and challenging juxtapositions put forward by “Barker House.”

That isn’t to say there are no distinct characters here. There are – Moloney has assembled an engaging collection of personalities. Do-gooders and get-byers, sadists and Samaritans. We see those people throughout these stories. We learn about their coping mechanisms for surviving the job from witnessing their actions and hearing their thoughts while outside the walls. But once that Rubicon is crossed, they are all one.

(It should be noted that there are also a few short interstitial scenes – conversations between two of the inmates that serve as connective tissue. These dialogues are offbeat, funny and quite sad.)

Over the course of this year, we’re privy to the vast array of struggles that come with this job. These men and women are dealing with their own personal tragedies – deaths and illnesses and divorces and suicides – all while confronted daily with the everyday reality of Barker House. Their job forces them to tamp down their own sense of humanity, but the sad truth is that one can only flip that empathetic switch so many times. Eventually, those nihilistic impulses are going to start bleeding into their regular lives, making the compartmentalization of work and home almost impossible. These are not fundamentally bad people (well, most of them aren’t), but the grinding bleakness of the setting ensures that any redemptive moments that arise are both exceedingly small and exceedingly rare.

Moloney is writing from experience here – he spent some time as a corrections officer himself – and that verisimilitude reads clearly throughout. There’s a vividness to the people and places rendered in “Barker House,” a constant tug of veracity that turns his already-strong gifts for language and narrative into something percussive, yet somehow gentle – a club wrapped in velvet.

This is an intricate and incisive work, one that is unafraid to confront the harsh truths inherent to the realm of mass incarceration. But Moloney seeks not to condemn the men and women of Barker House, flawed though they may be, but rather to provide context into the world in which they live. It’s a look at how even the most well-meaning can be worn down by the relentless grind of a broken system.

“Barker House” isn’t an easy read, but it is an excellent one.

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 April 2020 05:53

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