cover image Zip Six

Zip Six

Jack Gantos. Bridge Works Publishing Company, $21.95 (281pp) ISBN 978-1-882593-15-6

Gantos's attempt to combine a raw prison novel with a sly send-up of the Elvis cult doesn't always work, but when it does, this first adult novel from a much-published YA and children's-book writer (Heads and Tails, etc.) is both compelling and very funny. Narrator Ray Jakes, an amiable no-account from Florida, has landed a zero-to-six-years (""zip six"") sentence at New York's West Street Prison for his role in the smuggling of a ton of hashish. The opening chapters are grim, as Ray confronts the disgusting (endemic body lice, inedible food) and the fearful (a sexual assault by an inmate who had been giving him boxing lessons). But the narrative's tone turns toward the surreal after Ray befriends an Elvis impersonator who's doing time for running Elvis-related con games. After a successful Christmas concert at the prison, Ray and Elvis perform at other jail facilities, with disastrous but wickedly funny consequences. When both manage to leave prison early, they team up again, in Memphis, where Elvis attempts to leave his impersonating days behind and Ray tries one last caper in his quest to flee to Canada. Sometimes it seems as if the narrative doesn't know which way to go; and the Elvis cult has been spoofed many times before, although Gantos offers a few new twists. But the ending is terrific, and the entire novel is governed by an irresistible quirkiness. (Sept.)