The place looks like a typical elementary school classroom. Block walls are painted white and powder blue. The clock has been decorated to look like the sun, with wavy rays of yellow light cut from construction paper. Students sit in a cluster, some at a round table, a few in wooden desk chairs.
But if the classroom looks familiar, the students do not. They are mostly middle-aged, African-American or Latino, wearing loose-fitting scrub-style uniforms. They are prisoners at the South Bay House of Correction, and they are learning to read and write.
Today they are discussing a chapter from “The Outsiders,” the 1967 young-adult novel sometimes banned over the years for its depiction of gang violence. In a raspy voice, graying inmate Franklin Pina reads a passage aloud, carefully parsing the longer words.
“The fight for self-preservation had hardened him beyond caring,” he read, squinting at the page through his reading glasses.
In a prison environment where emotion is interpreted as vulnerability, the men who have signed on for Anthony D’Aries’s literacy class have learned to see something of themselves in these fictional characters. Why do the Greasers in the book begrudge the Socs (or Socials), the instructor asks.
“Because they got all the breaks,” answers Carlton Spence Jr., “ ’cause they were wealthy.”
The men are all old enough to be D’Aries’s father. And D’Aries, 30, might not be teaching this class were it not for his own father.
Not that the old man served time. Don D’Aries was an Army cook in Vietnam who returned home to Long Island and made a career behind a supermarket deli counter. From a young age, his second son was awed by the father’s gruff patter about the war, muscle cars, mob movies, and classic rock lyrics.
For Anthony D’Aries, his father’s communication style epitomizes “The Language of Men,” which is the title of his first book, published recently by Hudson Whitman. It’s a coming-of-age memoir in which the author grapples with his father’s legacy and the tough, sarcastic exterior Don D’Aries set as an example for his sons.
“From very early on, I was just trying to mimic my father on the page in some way,” says D’Aries. “I was always fascinated with his voice, and the slang he’d use.”
In one of the episodes recalled in the book, D’Aries describes the time he took an indelible marker and wrote every curse word he could think of on the surface of his father’s work bench. He was
Of course, he got in trouble for it. Yet his father couldn’t resist slipping in a joke: “Got an A+ for spelling,” he muttered as he left the room.
“That line was glowing in my head for years and years,” says D’Aries, a poised, genial man who recently trimmed the unruly matt of dark hair he had in the photo that still appears on his badge at the prison.
“The Language of Men” follows D’Aries and his girlfriend (they are married now) as they travel to Vietnam, where she is counseling young women in the sex trade and he hopes to learn a little more about the place that defined so much of his father’s persona.
In the book, D’Aries describes his father’s manner of speaking as “a hillbilly twang of the Looney Tunes dialect — Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam — mixed with the African-American jive of the dirtiest comedians — Redd Foxx or Richard Pryor. . . . He gave all of my mother’s sisters and my female cousins flirty, construction-worker-on-a-coffee-break nicknames: baby, suga’, sweets, momma, girl, honey. He calls my wife, Vanessa, ‘Van Halen.’ ”
“My friends were always like, ‘What the hell is your dad talking about?’ ” D’Aries says. “At the same time, they thought he was hilarious.”
But that kind of comic bravado, he came to realize as he matured, often preempted any opportunity to engage in heartfelt, meaningful conversation. After his father suffered a stroke, D’Aries decided to sit down with him for a proper interview. Having moved to Boston to study at Emerson College, he made plans to revisit his hometown on Long Island.
“I remember driving down with a new tape recorder,” he says. “I had all these questions, and I was getting all excited, feeling like a real writer: I’ve got this idea, I’m on this mission, doing this reporting.”
But his first question (What was his father doing around the time he got drafted?) did not earn the kind of illuminating response D’Aries had been hoping for, to say the least. His father’s answer was curt and uneventful: “You know, hanging out.”
Anthony waited a few beats. He glanced at the voice recorder, which had a red indicator light that shone brightest when the recording was strongest. It was faint. He nearly panicked.
But he ventured a second question, then a third. Gradually, his father began to open up. “We talked for almost four hours,” D’Aries says. “We took a break, had dinner, and went back to it.” The recording gave him the material he needed to begin writing his memoir.
The book has a comic-book-style cover, with a little explosion of manly icons — a guitar, a pack of cigs, a busty silhouette like you might see on a truck’s mud flap — designed by Phil Pascuzzo, who created the Twitter bird. Among the fellow New England writers who have endorsed “The Language of Men” is Andre Dubus III (“Townie: A Memoir”), who joined D’Aries at a recent reading dubbed “How to Be a Man” at Jabberwocky Bookshop, in Newburyport.
“I’m glad to help Andre launch his career,” D’Aries joked, taking the podium first. “He’s got a lot of potential.”
In his classroom at the House of Correction, D’Aries is at ease, on an even keel, asking the students how they’re doing and gently encouraging them to talk about what they’re reading.
They are aware he’s written a book, he says. “A lot of the guys are also veterans like my father, so that kind of sparks their interest.” In a way, he says, the inmates’ circumstances take his father’s leather-clad, arm’s-length demeanor to the extreme: “They’re cut off from society, but they’re also basically illiterate, and that keeps them locked away inside themselves. They can’t express themselves in certain ways.”
When he succeeds in getting his students to talk about the stories they’re reading, “their own personal stories come out, and a lot of times it’s about their fathers,” says D’Aries. “Either they weren’t around, or they didn’t talk much. . . . It basically boils down to ‘I wish I’d talked to my dad more.’ ”
The first inmate to arrive before class began had a gloomy look on his face. When D’Aries asked what was wrong, David Otero said he had just learned that his wife was sick. He put his head down on the table.
But when the rest of the students arrived and began discussing “The Outsiders,” Otero brightened a bit. At one point he pointed out that the Greasers weren’t given enough credit.
“They were smart,” he said.
On the way out of class, Otero stopped to say a few words about his instructor. “Me and him, we talk,” he said. “He’s helped me a lot. Before, I didn’t read nothing. He’s a wonderful teacher.”
For D’Aries, simply sending his students back to their cell blocks in a little better frame of mind is a success.
“That’s what I try to remind myself each day,” he says. “I think they feel loyal to our classroom in some way.”
Anthony D’Aries will read from “The
Language of Men” on Nov. 29 at
Porter Square Books in Cambridge.
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.