Many people would consider the hellish atmosphere and regimentation in a prison to be itself a deterrence, meant to keep people contemplating a criminal act from straying into wrongdoing. At the same time, there are convicts who genuinely need help that a correctional institution may not be ready to offer. At the start of Ginnah Howard’s novel “Doing Time Outside”, Rudy Morletti is imprisoned near his home here in upstate New York at the fictional Onango County Correctional Facility, and not for the first time. He stands accused of assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a controlled substance.
As their story unfolds, Carla, his mother, and his sister Tess have come to tell him that they haven’t yet raised sufficient funds to bail him out. Rudy believes the charges against him are trumped up, and that whatever he did might be atributed to his bipolar disorder and chemical dependency. He needs help and support and at least has the good fortune of a loving, albeit stressed out, family. But even with the return of his grandmother Angela, the unpredictability of Rudy’scondition makes his prospects uncertain.
“Doing Time Outside” is the third in Ginnah Howard’s trilogy about family and community in Onango County dealing with mental health and addiction matters. It begins in “Rope and Bone”, a series of stand-alone stories that Ginnah started to write twenty years ago and will be released next year in a single volume. The story picks up with Howard’s acclaimed novel “Night Navigation” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). Any reader who has travelled the pages with Rudy, the long-suffering women in his family and friends and neighbors who are both supportive and troublesome, could be drawn into their travails. Unresolved issues of bureaucracy take the place of humanity while restrictions on movement or association prove to be impractical. When Rudy does finally win release he strains to make himself useful, striving to repair the family’s Maverick, taking a part-time custodial job at the local Catholic church, longing to trace down his former girlfriend, Sunny. Carla continues to hold down a bartender-psychologist job at the Edgewater tavern. Tess has taken an interest in zoology and is hoping for an internship that will allow her to study chimpanzees. But they are all controlled by Rudy’s vulnerabilities, external threats and personal shortcomings.
Even though the action takes place in the picturesque upstate New York region, the settings are often bleak and the circumstances gritty.
Carla watches Dirk’s truck lights disappear down Chicken Farm Road. Dirk’s a nice man, but no matter how grateful she is for the loan of the bail money, for the job at the Edgewater, she does not have to put up with him plunking his hand on her knee.
She makes her way around the mud ruts to the walkway. What in God’s name is Rudy doing with the Maverick? Whatever it is, it looks dangerous. Still it’s better than him in bed all day with the blinds down. If only Tess would try to get Rudy some part-time work at Dawes’s, maybe helping Hoop get the equipment ready for spring planting. Surely there’s no law says he can’t work for the town justice. But no, Tess won’t go out on a limb. Tess always thinking mostly of Tess. Carla turns the knob and then twists to give the door a big push with her rear. Everything around this place you’ve got to either slam or crash into for it to work.
Novelist Ginnah Howard lives in Gilbertsville, an Otsego County community noted for its arts activity. She taught high school English for 27 years, and it was the work with students that started her on a literary career. Her stories have been published in several literary journals and nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. Ginnah has also received a media award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York State for her writings and her work on behalf of those with mental illness and their families.