The first copy of Go-Boy! I saw was a well-loved book, likely stolen from a library with its cellophane cover. It was in an apartment in Ville-Emard, an urban wasteland beneath Montreal’s Turcot overpasses. An ignored and forgotten place of concrete nothingness, empty lots, and crumbling factories. A neighbourhood of new immigrants and the dying sounds of working-class Quebecois French. Neither of the two boys who gave me Go-Boy! — by Roger Caron, who passed away earlier this month — had made it to high school. One had been to juvie, and the other saw the inside of a drunk tank more often than most. It was surprising that a prized possession of theirs would be a Governor General’s Award–winning book, because yes, Go-Boy! made it that far. I think I know why.
As a young deliquent, Roger Caron imagined himself as Dillinger every time he was carted away by the law. He grew up to become one of Canada’s most infamous bank robbers and escape artists. Caron’s infamy exploded in 1978, when he received the GG for non-fiction for Go-Boy! It was a book so widely hailed that judges and criminology students later kept it on hand, and so widely selling that it made him “one of the most financially successful writers in the country.” (In the early 1990s, Caron estimated his earnings at $250,000. This was all before the threat of Paul Bernardo earning money from the telling of his offenses provoked a surge in proceeds-of-crime legislation at the federal and provincial levels.)
Go-Boy’s narrative starts in 1954, with its author going to jail at age sixteen, and ends in 1972, with him still locked up at thirty-four. Strangely, it’s the story that takes place outside of jail as much as inside that makes the book so important. On the opening pages, Roger is born into a poor family in the now-dwindling rural home; his alcoholic father takes to drinking his own”contraband booze,” which he sells to make ends meet. The boy’s life includes too much free time and little impulse control. Caron’s writing details a Canada that was not and is not on the news: neither neat nor tidy, it is a nation where poverty, violence, crime, and substance abuse are not only visible, but habitual. Not a pretty Canada, not a literary Canada, but very much a real Canada.
In a 2009 essay on prison writing, UBC English professor Deena Rymhs explained how convicts like Caron use the craft not only as a form of documentary, but also as a way to assert “one’s individual identity in the face of erasure.” Written inside, Go-Boy! is an astounding work of art — made more so if you know Caron had only a sixth-grade education when first incarcerated. The book took him fifteen years to write, and almost never made it to print: during the 1971 Kingston Pen riot, he had his manuscript taken away from him at bayonet point (later detailed in his second book, Bingo!).
Pierre Berton’s introduction to Go-Boy! describes Caron as a “multi-time loser,” suggesting Berton viewed Caron’s success as a writer only in combination with reformation and conformation. “I have called him a loser because that is what he is — or at least what he was until he started work on the present manuscript,” wrote Berton. It’s a damning critique, essentially creating a divide between the criminal Caron and the worthy one — and has only become worse, now that we know the prodigal son never went legit, but time after time continued his crimes.
In 1992, with worsening Parkinson’s, Caron was arrested for a string of armed robberies in Ottawa; an escape attempt followed. While on parole in 2001, he was found with a loaded gun, “going to a job, obviously.” And at sixty, he told Saturday Night magazine that “the parole board was hesitant to release [him] into a big city with lots of banks.” In the end, he never conformed to a clean Canada.
But Berton’s assessment was unfair. In Go-Boy!, Caron repeatedly takes the blame to get others off the hook, never holds a grudge, and even stops to donate blood on his way to a heist (after hearing a radio report about an injured boy in need of his blood type). He’s hotheaded and foolish, but that makes him complex and human, not a loser. What Berton missed was that Caron was and is a hero for claiming a voice, and with it proving the existence of another Canada. This is the enduring draw of Go-Boy!: that it gives representation to a multitude of Canadians living at our society’s margins. For two young men in Ville-Emard, Caron’s book was the closest thing to their world they saw in print. It legitimized their existence.
It’s a shame that Go-Boy! has fallen out of print. It was likely easier for my friends in Montreal to lift the book from a library than to find a copy any other way. On hearing of Caron’s death, I was disappointed to realize how many Canadians are ignorant of both him and his book. This country has a slew of great writers, but it’s a rarity to see a book such as Go-Boy! win like it did. Caron earned that GG with his clear language and a natural ability to rivet his audience. His book’s greatest success, though, is its ability to last, to pass from hand to hand, to be held onto and read — and then reread — by those who feel voiceless.
Kristin Gorsline is an editorial intern at The Walrus.