“Barker House” is the debut novel of UMass Lowell professor and former corrections officer David Moloney. The book interweaves the lives of nine officers who work at the fictional Barker House prison in the nonfictional state of New Hampshire.
Moloney turns the smallest moments — a prisoner anxiously shaving his face during a standoff, a guard preparing to pitch at a police league softball game — into rich psychological portraits. The drama doesn’t come from riots or prison breaks. It’s in the daily struggle to find meaning in life under extraordinary circumstances.
“Barker House” sets itself apart from other imaginative works on this subject by its refusal to follow the standard Hollywood prison tropes. Divided into chapters with alternating central perspectives, we see this early on in a chapter called “Bubble Time.” The chapter’s title is a reference to the prison command center where O’Brien, a depressed alcoholic health nut, retreats when he wants to be alone with his thoughts. O’Brien’s partner, an older but incompetent officer named Menser, has lost the key to his handcuffs. And O’Brien, who often ends up playing mentor to his veteran colleague, has to help him find it.
Do they follow protocol and report the lost item, drawing the wrath of an ornery lieutenant? Do they undergo the humiliating and laborious practice of searching the cells and prisoners, hoping it will turn up? As O’Brien considers the possibilities, other matters press on him. Hitting the gym. Finding low-calorie beer with a high alcohol content. The horrors of prison hygiene. He even reveals a suppressed creative side as, now off-shift, drunk and still trying to relieve stress, he spontaneously begins drawing a portrait of his partner, feeling a surge of sympathy for Menser despite his incompetence.
I like the lost-key incident as it shows how Moloney can open up multiple literary possibilities with a single, simple act — the sort of act that may be overlooked by writers seduced by the desire to overstate and amplify. This ability is likely responsible for the praise that “Barker House” has received, and I add my voice to those impressed by the work of a young author whose skills suggest someone with a mature artistic vision.
North & South Ireland: Before Good Friday & The Celtic Tiger
Loom Press (2020)
“North & South Ireland” features a collection of images taken by photographer James Higgins in the early-to-mid ’80s. This was, as the subheading indicates, the period before the Celtic Tiger phenomenon, when the Republic of Ireland’s economic policies made it an enticing destination for corporations, and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended hostilities between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The book is a time capsule from a period of political violence and recession. Beautifully printed, the images suggest a frayed cultural scene. Both rural and urban landscapes seem rundown, with architecture unwashed, collapsed or covered with faded graffiti. But there are indications at the same time of simmering liveliness, if not vitality. Because of a 1969 law, artists in Ireland paid no tax on the sale of their work, discouraging sculptors and the like from leaving for other lands. We meet one, drinking tea and toiling at his craft. We also discover residual traces of the first wave of the punk rock movement, its anger, dissonance and hedonism an apt reflection of the milieu.
We are treated to snapshots revealing an array of crosscurrents: Catholicism, youth culture, mythology, superstition, craft, tradition, rebellion and commerce. Higgins’ range is wide, and he seems as adept at capturing ruined castles as chronicling impoverished-looking and wise-beyond-their-years children. And there are the moments of magic: the strong and penetrating glance of a girl on a North Ireland ferry, children pushing a younger sibling in a baby carriage, bus mechanics unselfconsciousnessly jostling each other while working.
The book is prefaced with a concise but useful foreword by the author/photographer, and there is an introduction by local author Stephen O’Connor that shouldn’t be overlooked. It tells of O’Connor’s chance encounter with Higgins and his wife in the fall of 1983. Since much of the ensuing work revolves around such moments — brief but profound glimpses into the lives of others during a journey — the O’Connor intro hints at the book’s themes while doing a good job of providing necessary context to help us perceive just how much is happening in the lives of the people we will go on to meet.
Organizational Change in an Urban Police Department: Innovating to Reform
Brenda J. Bond-Fortier
On the surface, it would seem that Brenda J. Bond-Fortier’s book, which focuses on the Lowell Police Department as a model for community policing, might only appeal to specialists. But despite its rather dry title, “Organizational Change in an Urban Police Department” provides a compelling look at a midsize police department as it negotiates social changes and searches for better ways to serve the community it protects.
Bond-Fortier, an associate professor of public administration at Suffolk University, began her involvement with the Lowell Police Department while an undergrad at UMass Lowell. She has an insider’s eye into its operations, yet retains an academic’s taste for data and objectivity. I would add that she has an unacademic flair for the selection of quotes, some of which would make for colorful dialogue in the hands of a playwright.
This book is a must-have for anyone interested in the history of Lowell, as its portrait of the LPD over the past half-century is exhaustive. But it isn’t just about the department. Many of the changes were called for and brought about by citizens, and in places the book is a record of community response to crime, safety and outreach models. As the book makes clear, law enforcement as a profession is a relatively recent development in human history, so we still may be working on a clear definition of its goals and methods. On top of that, recent technological shifts, notably cameras, have radically transformed how we assess the effectiveness of the various departments, agencies and agents. It’s interesting to consider that Lowell might serve as a model for how to proceed in the midst of a national discourse about police accountability problems. This book serves as a fascinating and detailed gateway to that debate.
Listen to interviews with several of the authors and publishers featured above on The 495 podcast. Click here for an episode guide. >>>