Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523
Red Ryan was the actual person who served as the model for the hero of More Joy in Heaven. He was released from prison in 1935 after serving more than ten years for grand theft. For a few months, Ryan was the toast of Toronto, but the fashion of his popularity passed and he reverted to his previous patterns. Ryan was finally killed by a police officer while attempting to rob a liquor store.
Callaghan’s novel turns this true story into a version of the parable of the prodigal son. The fictional hero of More Joy in Heaven, Kip Caley, sees another side of life while serving his long prison term. His transformation is due largely to the help of a priest who is ministering there. Caley forgets the demands of his giant ego and finds new satisfaction in helping other inmates. He becomes a model prisoner, and through the intervention of a Canadian senator and other political figures, he is granted parole.
Unfortunately, his well-earned reputation for being reborn on the inside makes him a valuable commodity on the outside. The senator gets him a job as a greeter at a popular sports bar, which puts Caley back in contact with the fast-track world of heavy drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Shrewd entrepreneurs, political opportunists, and thrill seekers of various kinds pounce on him as soon as he is free.
Caley loses touch with Father Butler, who in prison had shown him a better way of life. Instead, Caley finds himself hobnobbing with a bishop of the church, whose devotion to the power of the institution leaves little time to care about any individual. A waitress named Julie, who has also been through some hard times, comes to love Caley for reasons that have nothing to do with his notoriety. She has to compete, however, with the senator’s daughter, who wants only a fling with the famous former bank robber. Julie wins, but their love is not enough to stave off the inevitable tragedy.
The dream that catches fire in Caley’s heart is to become a member of the parole board, which would allow him to continue on a larger scale the worthwhile work he had begun in prison. The dream is frustrated, however, by his own impatience and then vetoed by Judge Ford. This same judge had originally sentenced Caley and had opposed his early release. Judge Ford is untouched by mercy, pity, peace, or love. He sees nothing but the law. In one memorable passage, Ford is compared to the cynical former convict Whispering Joe Foley. They are portrayed as mirror images of each other, both addicted to the law. Ford can think only in terms of enforcing the law; Foley can think only in terms of breaking it.
The extremely romantic and dramatic ending leaves the reader with a better understanding of the impersonal forces that control society and destroy Kip Caley. Sympathy for Caley is qualified, however, by an appreciation of the tragic consequences of his kind of egomaniacal naïveté. The celebration to welcome back the prodigal son can become toxic if it continues too long.
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