On the Backstretch
On the Backstretch fills in a blank in modern literary history. Set in 1930s England, this short novel tells the tale of the prison stay of Gulley Jimson, the William Blake-spouting artist anti-hero who directly addresses the reader through Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. In Cary’s novel Jimson tells his friends (and readers) almost nothing of his months behind bars, and seems the same man he was before being sent away. On the Backstretch uses threads and hints from Cary’s novel to propose that while Jimson remained an artist, a schemer and a reluctant advocate for his fellow man even behind bars, that he was indeed changed by his experience, and in telling this part of his history he gulls his readers into forming a unique—and disturbing—bond. On the Backstretch stands as a work in its own right, but those familiar with Cary’s novel will read both in a different light.
ISBN: 978-1-60489-42-6 Trade paper $15.95 Sale $8.00
ISBN: 978-1-60489-041-9 Library binding $26 Sale $13.00
W.C. Bamberger is the author of five previous books of criticism and fiction, including Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh: On the Arts of Don Van Vliet and the short story collection A Jealousy for Aesop. He is currently writing a biography of perceptual theorist Adelbert Ames, Jr., and a new novel. He is editor and publisher of Bamberger Books, and lives in Whitmore Lake, Michigan, with his daughter.
From the Book:
I should have felt there was a fix in when the police van was just out of the starting gate. The regular prison drive being so common to the old sent down beefeaters what cuff and carry us, they commonly nap on the way, their heads lolling on a prisoner’s shoulder. Peaceful-as-a-babe face against a skull tattoo. No one minds. Might as well get used to too-close quarters out of the gate.
But this run, instead of us having to wake our guards when the gate hewed into view, the bluecoats were all eyes and craning neck. So I should have had the horse sense to know something was up. But I was occupied down inside a painting I’d been snatched away from. I only caught on when I saw the great ladders and steel scaffolding at the walls.
“Honest lads, those,” I remarked. “To be breaking in. Must be of the Old Church.” But the only response was a loud exhalation from the lad next to me. And it certainly wasn’t an incense cellar I was smelling.
We approached the gate through a Siegfried Line of stacked blocks and mortar sacks. Ladders led up to sagging planks that ran along the outside walls. I supposed the state had run out of real criminals to try to rehabilitate, what with all the ambitious ones enlisting in the Quarter Masters, and the lazy ones getting in on munitions manufacture, knowing there’s a war coming. Having only the poor likes of me to contend with, the nation then decided to go about plaguing the prisons themselves. Refitting the old scows for the excesses of the dark days to come. So, instead of being taken to my old familiar chokey I was motored down to one in the midst of its grand unopening.
Inside the walls, humpbacked drones in beekeepers’ masks were blasting away at the scumble of soot that had happily nestled up against the bricks since Dickens’ time. Destroying history, they were. Obliterating the very thing that the Industrial Revolution had most given London. It was like taking Brasso to an old pair of fire brigade braces. Disrespectful. Why, we might slip back into pre-factory days, if the sandblasts didn’t watch their lights. Wouldn’t do to blast away progress and let through a hole to an Eden for the criminal idle. Better to keep the straight snakes of smudge in the lines of mortar.
And have a care, I thought, for the manners of hospitality. In an honestly weathered building
The stones are pity, and the bricks, well-wrought affections
The beams and rafters are forgiveness;
The mortar and cement of the work, tears of honesty
But clean all that out and a man feels cold and unwelcome. Even in the familiar, comforting embrace of His Majesty’s cells.
From inside the van I could hear the bands of workers calling across. Like a bird spotter, I pegged my flocks: I heard Italians (all those bouncing vowels I knew from my days of being self-taught at the back of art class), French (from the maitre-des who have run me off), and Yanks (I could hear them spit down when the van drove underneath, the baptism of the newest powerful down on the Mum Island). All of the flocks balanced in lines like sparrows on a tension wire. A Tower of Babel snug as the Tower of London.