Post Your Opinion
In the Belly of the Beast
by Sherri Davis-Barron

AS LONG As he can remember, Roger Caron needed danger to feel fully alive. And to feel powerful when he survived it. He talked about that in Go-Boy! (1978), the extraordinary book he exorcised from himself during 24 years in prison. Danger exhilarated him. As a young boy, he became addicted to the pleasure of scaling a cliff above the St. Lawrence River. "The spot held such an element of danger - of my breaking my fool neck or drowning - that I became deliciously intoxicated by it." Roger can't swim.

He was barely a man when he learned that armed robbery satisfied that need too. Years after he'd won the Governor General's Award for Go-Boy! and simultaneously become the preeminent Canadian example of the "rehabilitated criminal," Roger would often muse wistfully that he never felt so alive as when he was robbing banks. It made him feel he was "living on the edge," he would say. He likened his criminality to being a "compulsive gambler." Even when his life was good, he couldn't help dreaming of that "fabulous score "that would somehow prove to the world that he wasn't such a damn fool after all. The ultimate heist would be a kind of redemption.

So, for years after he had ostensibly gone straight, he eyed banks like other men eyed women. We would drive past a bank that he considered an easy mark and he would lick his lips with desire. He would explain why it would be easy to rob, because it was tucked away, dimly lit, whatever. "Roger, you'd never go back to crime, would you?" I'd ask. He would smile, chuckle, and drive on by in the burgundy Firebird he loved.

But that was 1985, when life was still pretty good, at times so unimaginably good it was scary and difficult to trust. Roger was the famous writer people recognized when he worked out at the Ottawa Athletic Club, a hero to strange bedfellows to criminals and to the police officers who arrested them the ex-con who had made it so spectacularly by writing an international best seller about life in prison.

Judges kept copies of Go-Boy! in their office libraries. It was required reading for criminology students. Roger estimates he made about $250,000 from Go-Boy!, an incredible feat for any Canadian author; he was one of the most financially successful writers in the country. His second book, Bingo!, his account of the 1971 Kingston riot, was due out in the fall. And he was at work on his first novel, JoJo (1988).

He had a modest home near Hull, Quebec, which he kept so meticulously clean that he would good-naturedly clean the water droplets from the sink before guests had finished brushing their teeth. (In the pen, they called him Felix Unger, after the neurotic clean-freak in the Neil Simon play The Odd Couple.) Women gravitated to him; they were intrigued by his past, which he was quick to tell them about. He was also handsome, captivating, and kind, and in superb physical shape. He was immensely proud of his physique. He was proud too of the scars that were a map of his past tattooed across his chest.

He spent his days working out, biking, fishing. He spent evenings quietly with his few close friends and with a string of fit, beautiful, and vibrant women, usually at his home. He visited his sister Sue in Cornwall, Ontario, who had stuck by him through it all. And he wrote into the night, in a special room set aside for that, where he pasted outlines and plot lines and character sketches on the walls in front of his chair.

What happened to Roger? Why, after 13 years of the straight life, did a 53-year-old man who had built a new career through writing and lecturing on his "wasted life," once more embrace that first career, the sad self he called Go-Boy?

I asked that question many times during many conversations with Roger after he was arrested in March 1992 for a string of robberies in Ottawa. (In June of this year he was sentenced to eight years in prison.) Each time, he would usually pause, sometimes for seconds, sometimes for much longer. When he answered, his voice would be very low.

"Oh, I don't think I can talk about that, I can't talk about that." But on days when he feels like talking, when his medication has kicked in and he feels sharp and coherent, he responds with anger and bitterness.

He blames the demons within him, but he blames far more the demons on the outside: Canadian publishers. He says they made millions from Go-Boy!, which sold nearly eight million copies at $5.95, while he made only $250,000. By the late '80s, when he was very ill with Parkinson's disease, that money was long gone. Yet he had grown too sick to continue on the lecture circuit. And he no longer had the clarity of mind nor the physical ability to write.

"Just imagine how I feel," he said. "Bitter, very angry ... white-collar people are the biggest criminals of all. Publishers made millions of dollars off my book and robbed me.

He also says the Canada Council refused four times to give him grants. The Canada Council wouldn't comment. Communications spokeswoman Moira Johnson said Canada's Privacy Act prevented her from doing so. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., which first published Go-Boy!, also declined to comment.

Roger and I met at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre this spring. It was the first time we had seen each other for many years, though we had kept in touch by phone up until the last few years. Roger kept cancelling my visits; I felt he didn't want me to see how much he had deteriorated. We were separated by a glass barrier and talked through a phone. Roger spent a lot of time discussing his illness and how the medication works to ease his symptoms, particularly the pain.

"You'll see me loosen up.... huh ... you'll have to go very easy until the medication gets through my system, it's got to go all the way up to my brain and right through the blood barrier. I don't get my tranquillizer right now, or do I?" he says, looking puzzled. "I'm a little bit nervous right now. And I can't seem to hold the phone very long, you know, I fidget a lot, you know. Remember Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, the boxer, his voice is much lower than mine. His voice is really low."

Roger getting Parkinson's is providence's idea of a cruel, sick joke. No disease could have been harder on his pride, on his dignity, on his sense of power as a man. He always talked of his "manhood." He boasted of his physical prowess, how he could skate from the National Arts Centre to Dow's Lake and back, hit crack after crack, and always land on his feet.

Today his body has turned against him, often humiliating him. During our inter-view, his head rolls on his neck, flails and jerks from side to side. His facial features are rigid and his words slurred. His left limbs tremble. He worries about being able to hold the phone receiver for long. And he's upset because his medication has come late tonight. He had timed my visit so the medication would have have taken effect by the time I arrived. Roger takes about 640 pills a month to control his illness.

When he was diagnosed with Parkinson's in the early '80s, he hid it welt. He didn't tell me about it until months after we stopped seeing each other. Then he presented it as if he'd only just been diagnosed. For years after, every time we talked on the telephone, he always said everything was great, he couldn't be better, that you wouldn't even know he had Parkinson's. The doctors can't believe it, he would say, he had absolutely no symptoms. He could do everything as well as before. His current girlfriend, Barbara Prince, says it wasn't until after she met him in 1989 that he started to accept the Parkinson's and was able to talk about it openly with friends.

But Roger did have symptoms as far back as 1985, and those symptoms - the body tremors and the treacherous left limbs that would no longer do what his brain told them to - soon became impossible to conceal. This disturbed Roger deeply. He couldn't bear to have people see him like that. It got to the point where he wouldn't go outside because people thought he was drunk.

"My left leg would drag, my arm would go dead, I wasn't used to people seeing me like that. I'd panic and go back up to my apartment.... My dignity is very important to me .... I felt like I was losing my manhood ... and I wanted it back."

Roger understands his return to crime as a means of regaining his sense of power and of self-respect. If he could rob a bank in his condition, he would become once more the legend, he would once more become Mad Dog Caron. "When I was robbing banks, everybody had so much respect for me."

The compulsion to revert to living on the edge came to him when he was, literally, on the edge of a cliff in the fall of 1990. He had been fishing with Barbara from a 25 -foot cliff overlooking the Ottawa River near the Parliament Buildings. She had gone to put some gear back in the car. Roger decided to cast one last time. He lost his footing and fell into the ice-cold, black, swirling water. The water was well over his head; he thought he was going to drown. Instead of panicking and yelling for help - "I wouldn't yell to anyone for help" - he felt "happy, happy as can be." But Barbara heard the splashing, jumped in after him, and dragged him to shore. Once Roger's feet were on rocky footing, he stood up. "I was excited, I was laughing and laughing. I said 'Barbara, I almost died, wow'. "He felt a surge of power and vitality.

"I said, I'm not that crippled, I'm not dead yet, I'm not buried yet.' "

Shortly afterward, Roger started expressing anger, which he had diligently contained since his release from prison in 1978. (He wouldn't even go to large parties because he was afraid someone would say or do something that would anger him; he was still on parole at the time.)

By the late '80s, however, he no longer cared if he lived or died. He reached inside for the reckless one, the violent and irrepressible one, he reached inside for the Go-Boy. He started getting into fist fights in the lobbies of apartment buildings and with motorists who got in his way.

"My manhood started coming back to me. I'd say 'l can fight and I don't even get excited. I'm as cool as a cucumber."'

Roger admits there was a pragmatic side to his recidivism; he needed money badly. The pain in his left limbs had become so bad that he discovered the only way to ease it enough to write was through the use of cocaine. A gram and a half of coke would last about 14 hours, one session at the typewriter, and cost about $150. Roger received $550 a month in disability and a few thousand dollars a year in royalties. He'd long ago used up the $20,000 advance he got in 1989 for his fifth book, "The Other Side of the Wall," which was to be a sequel to GoBoy! Although he was living with his girlfriend, there wasn't a lot of extra cash.

"The pain was horrible, just horrible. Most people get it when they're 70, their muscles are like flab. I'm young to get it. When I tense up, mine go like steel cables." When he used cocaine, the pain subsided and Roger felt like a man again.

"Two lines of coke in 90 seconds, I'd get up, no pain, I could talk, I could think, I was clear, I was like a hulk. I'd say: Where's that bank?

"It [taking cocaine] was very enticing for me, to be in that kind of shape and the phone right there, all I got to do is pick up the phone and in half an hour have someone deliver it, I give him $100 ... I'd he on my feet and I'd be laughing, my brain would be sharp." He finished JoJo on cocaine and wrote all of Dreamcaper (1992) on cocaine.

What Roger doesn't talk about is his increasing struggle to write, and the rote that struggle played in his inclination to use cocaine and to return to the only other livelihood he knew well. His "confidence was in his boots," says his close friend David Schleich, academic vice-president of Niagara College in Welland, Ontario. It wasn't just the pain that was keeping Roger from writing; Roger was keeping Roger from writing. With JoJo, Roger had embarked on a new literary form, the novel. He was in a foreign and frightening psychological place.

"At this point we see the seeds of change happening, the beginning of the long, slow decline," says Schleich. "JoJo was his most challenging work, challenging because he was departing from non-fiction."

Roger was trying to create characters and situations. Yet he had a "fragile professional base," says Schleich. He had a grade six education and had not read widely, although he was aware of many writers. "He probably never felt accepted by the writing community although I don't think he would have couched it in those terms," says Schleich. But then, Roger wasn't trying to emulate anyone; writing was a therapeutic and solitary journey for Roger.

He was satisfying the same need with his fiction that he had with his non-fiction work, says Schleich, "trying to put some shape and form to the demons and the darkness that Roger faced all the time." Writing was simply another way to tell his story. And he told his story, thinly veiled, in JoJo and Dreamcaper, by writing into the characters and the plots the situations, people, and events that allowed him to draw on what he knew.

The central character in JoJo spends time in prison, and Dreamcaper is a fictional account of the biggest armed robbery in North America. Roger wrote well when he wrote what he knew. But using his imagination, the art of true creation, was alien and intimidating. Seminal experiences and phrases in Go-Boy! resurface in Jojo, his novel. One stands out. In Go-Boy!, Roger talks about a good Samaritan family he met along the way, who gave him food, shelter, and a "thick and luxurious sweater" for the road. He writes of his fear that they will hear on the radio that they are harbouring a fugitive. The same incident recurs in JoJo. The main character is again given refuge by a kind family, who give him food, shelter, and a "thick and luxurious sweater." Again he is spared their knowing his identity because the radio is off. In both books, he eats well and downs a full quart of milk before leaving.

The reviews of JoJo and Dreamcaper were on balance negative, although reviewers often tried to be kind. Many admired Roger's accomplishments, but felt a professional need to be honest. They found his characters shallow, his plots cliched. The Ottawa Citizen's Burt Heward, among the kindest of Roger's critics, described the characterization and dialogue in Dreamcaper and JoJo as "amateurish."

Heward reviewed Dreamcaper a few months after Roger was arrested: "If the crooks weren't so ignoble and shallow and if their talk had not been so banal and childish, Dreamcaper might have had literary as well as entertainment value."

Roger's sense of self-worth was very much tied up in his writing and the accolades it brought him. In the preface to Go-Boy!, he said that writing the book had given him the only sense of dignity and self-worth he had ever known.

"His affirmation in life came in a most positive way from his writing," says Schleich, who sees Roger as a gifted storyteller. But he was never able to surpass in style, skill, or authenticity his work in Go-Boy! He had trouble living with that.

Roger became impossible to work with as his disease and his cocaine use worsened. He couldn't write. He would call Angel Guerra, the marketing director at Stoddart Publishing, every second day. (Stoddart published JoJo and Dreamcaper, and had advanced Roger $20,000 for "The Other Side of the Wall," which was to be Roger's account of coping on the outside after 24 years in prison.)

For years Guerra, along with David Schleich, had been encouraging Roger to write "The Other Side of the Wall," which Guerra felt had the potential to match in spirit and power the success of Go-Boy! Roger wanted to help other inmates and he wanted to tell the penal system how it could help. The two would talk for hours about the form that book might take. Roger never wrote a word. He says it was because he was sick and bitter.

Guerra says Roger is afraid to look too deeply into his own soul, that he is afraid to open up, that he cannot bring to that book the honesty it requires to be real. "When Roger is really looking at his life it is so difficult for him to write," Guerra observes.

Guerra, who in his own way feels betrayed by Roger, says Roger couldn't handle life on the outside because he had always been taken care of "When you're in jail since you were 16, 1 think you become a child of the state system; I don't think that prisons prepare people to come out into the world where you've got to pay bills, got to put down money on a condo, got to earn a living and meet deadlines."

But he has sympathy for Roger too. He felt he was in the unusual, perhaps impossible, position of coming out of prison a celebrity on both sides of the wall. He was admired by criminals and judges. When he lost his place on the outside, he began scaling the wall.

"Most people get a chance at the stepping stones, one step at a time leading up to success, says Barbara Prince, Roger's steadfast girlfriend. "With Roger, it hit him. What do you do to keep up there?"

He spent his years on the outside trying to prove Go-Boy! was not a fluke. He failed. But he feels society forgets that he began writing Go-Boy! for therapy. He didn't plan to be a writer. But Go-Boy! became a best seller and Roger became a legend. Society assumed that because he wrote such a good book, he was "instantly cured."

"But I wasn't instantly cured, I wasn't a new person overnight .... I was still in the belly of the beast."

By the late '80s, Roger had become very angry at what was happening to his sharp mind and to his body. "And when I am angry, I get self-destructive." He fell back on his legend, reached inside for Mad Dog Caron, a bank robber one newspaper described as "the hardest of the hard rocks, those brutal and untamable convicts who are eventually consumed by the intensity of their rage."


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us