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Breakfast with the Devil

by L. Wayne Carlson

Breakfast with the Devil is a ballad of conundrums. On one level it’s an unsentimental account of the career of the most-escaped prisoner in modern North American history, the story of a hardscrabble Canadian farm boy who was neither a favourite son nor a natural-born loser. When the 18-year-old Carlson entered Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert Penitentiary in 1960, he fell into one of society’s grey areas, and stayed there for most of his adult life. But the book is also about more profound rights and wrongs: the ironies and ambiguities that Carlson found in his life and in prison, and his soul-searching efforts to discover how to end the bad times and start the good ones.
And then there’s the busting out. Over a period of nearly 20 years Carlson escaped from several correctional institutions, using everything from twisted sheets to makeshift keys to simply running like hell. His adventures on the run ranged from the tragic to the ridiculous, with a huge cast of aiding and abetting fellow escapees and odd, walk-on bit players.
The book’s over-the-wall thrills are non-stop, complete with the sounds of baying hounds as desperate men crash through the underbrush. That’s the glam stuff, and Carlson’s spare, almost documentary prose dishes up hard juices of terror and excitement. However, the author’s minimal style occasionally puzzles – his many jailbird accomplices, rehab therapists, and non-con girlfriends are so lightly sketched they can be difficult to picture. Carlson compensates by giving a solid portrait of his attempts to find his place in the grand scheme of things, and the limitations of operating on fear and hate.
But the book’s real achievement lies in the evocation of a world where there are two sides to every story, from the behaviour of the divided souls in lock-up to the inconsistencies of the criminal justice system to the half-comic, half-tragic events that seem to dog unlucky individuals. Carlson’s account of his lawbreaking career feels like a protracted wrestling match between the impulse to grab easy fun and the yearning for sober respectable toil, where the game may be fixed and the competitors doomed – or not.