BU Prison Education Program alum graduates to the big time — publishing his first novel
By Brian Fitzgerald
Richard Marinick looks down from the roof deck of his condo in South Boston at the streets where he once ran wild with a neighborhood crime gang.
Then he looks back — at his youth. “I was a bad guy,” he says. “But I wasn’t evil.”
However, Marinick (MET’92,’95) didn’t reflect on his life as much back then, and he was bad enough to get himself in a lot of trouble. Despite a stint as a Massachusetts state trooper, he developed “expensive tastes” (especially cocaine), and he needed money. So Marinick and his cronies eventually graduated to “the big time,” as he puts it — holding up banks and armored cars. In 1986, after the second armored car robbery, his crime spree came to a halt after a 15-mile police chase in North Adams, Mass.
Sentenced at age 35 to 18 to 20 years in state prison, he had plenty of time to think about what he wanted to do with his life after he got out. He immediately decided to get an education, and started taking courses through BU’s Prison Education Program at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute–Norfolk. Years of psychological counseling along with Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings helped him confront his demons and beat his addictions. And while earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in liberal arts behind bars from Metropolitan College, he learned how to write fiction.
He honed his craft so well that his first novel, Boyos, about the South Boston underworld, is being published by Justin, Charles & Company on September 25. Like Marinick, “Wacko” Curran, the protagonist in Boyos, runs with Southie gangs, then gets his own crew together and starts planning bigger scores. Ultimately, he is forced to consider his options: stay in the mobster life, or get out before he is killed or goes to jail. The book is already getting favorable reviews: Publishers Weekly calls it “a visceral, accomplished debut.”
Not bad for a man who was once “immersed in the criminal element,” Marinick says. “I was a werewolf, a guy who specialized in scaring the crap out of people.” (Actually, he didn’t say “crap.”)
It made sense for him to tell the story of a band of violent South Boston gangsters. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Write about what you know.” But Marinick resisted this temptation at first. After all, he ended up serving 10 years in prison for his misdeeds, and he wanted to forget about those years. “I was reluctant to write about crime, about South Boston street stuff,” he says. “I wanted to distance myself from it. I was worried that I might be drawn back into that world. But my writing professors encouraged me to write about it.”
Marinick’s classes in prison were calm islands of learning in a turbulent sea of short tempers. “In an environment where there is hatred all the time, the classroom was the only place where you could be yourself for an hour or two,” he says. “There were racial tensions in prison. Everybody was ‘cliqued up.’ But in class you could put aside your differences and have an intelligent argument with a professor or a student. It was a magic place. You could be sitting right next to a rapist or a molester — they were called ‘skinners’ there — and you’d talk to them. This is something you couldn’t do in the general population, where nobody spoke to these guys. Nobody.”
Marinick says he has always liked to write, but the BU Prison Education Program gave him the confidence to “take writing and school seriously, after running the streets for 20 years.” The course work wasn’t easy, he says, but he and fellow classmates were determined to turn their lives around. “I had homework four to six hours a day, and I got it done,” he says. “We didn’t have the distractions the average college student has. We didn’t have parties to go to.”
When he got out of prison at age 46, he wanted to write a South Boston version of Martin Scorcese’s gang movie Mean Streets. After getting a job on Boston’s Big Dig as a tunnel worker, he worked on Boyos whenever he could — at lunch, inside leaky storage sheds. “I had discipline,” he says. “On the job site, I’d unzip my raincoat, pull out my manuscript, and start writing, and I wrote every day after work. Then I rewrote it in longhand five or six times. I was afraid of computers, but I learned how to use one, and rewrote it again.”
He showed the manuscript to Kate Mattes, owner of Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, who sent it to Justin, Charles publisher Stephen Hull (CGS’78, COM’80). “At first I was skeptical,” says Hull. “We get a number of queries and writing samples from people who are incarcerated, and I’ve never seen anything from that quarter that would be a good fit for us. But Boyos turned out to be terrific. Richard captures the street dialect and idioms in a way that’s extremely rare. Every once in a while you pick up a book and its voice just grabs you by the lapels and won’t let go, and for me this is one of those books.”
Marinick admires — and tries to emulate — a former BU creative writing professor who never taught in the Prison Education Program: the late crime author George V. Higgins. “He had a great ear for dialogue,” says Marinick. “I read his first book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and I said, ‘Yes, that’s the way people talk!’ ” Marinick’s Irish hoodlum characters seem like the real McCoy, but so do the police detectives in Boyos — possibly because of his experience as a state trooper. And if the novel’s La Cosa Nostra characters strike the reader as authentic, it’s because he hung out with mobsters in prison.
“I’d be working out with Mafiosi, lifting weights,” he says, “and I couldn’t help but notice the way they talked — their mannerisms — and I’d say to myself, ‘Only they could say it like that, and I’d write it all down later.”
Marinick has so much going for him now: Boyos has been optioned for a Hollywood film, and Hull has an option on his second novel, a private eye mystery in progress. Is he ever worried that the lure of a juicy heist might pull him back into a life of crime? After all, two years before the North Adams job, he was clean and sober and legit, only to go back down the wrong path. And as soon as he emerged a free man in 1996, former associates approached him with various “proposals.” But he said no to the boyos — for good.
“I’ve been out of that life long enough,” he says. “I’d let so many people down before, I just couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t disappoint all my professors. They went out of their way to help guys like me, guys who were considered the scum of the earth by people on the outside, the people who said, ‘Lock ’em up and throw away the key.’ That chapter of my life is closed.”
And a new chapter, as a writer, has opened.
Richard Marinick will read from — and sign copies of — Boyos on Wednesday, October 27, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble’s fifth floor reading room in Kenmore Square.