The main character in Carmel's high-spirited tale, Zolly Berns, is the middle-aged owner of Zolly's Place, a bar on Chicago's Rush Street that has become something of a safe haven for a group of gangsters . . . .Soon, Zolly finds himself incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Lexington, Kentucky . . . . an inviting sprawl studded with park-like spaces and open doors. . . .Carmel very cannily manipulates the standard world-in-miniature expectations attached to the prison novel, teasing readers about whether and to what extent Zolly will encounter a personal transformation . . . . And through it all, the author maintains very effectively the tension that animates all prison literature: How will Zolly's time inside alter his life outside?. . . . Carmel writes this comparatively simple narrative with an appealing wit and directness. . . . At the center of it all is Zolly, a wonderfully realized fictional creation whose multifaceted portrayal grounds the entire book. . . .
An intelligent and involving novel about an unusual inmate's personal transformation. Kirkus Reviews (kirkusrviews.com)
Spirituality Is The New Black - the spiritual and psychological journey of Zolly Berns set in a Chicago federal prison in the 1980s.
I picked up this book right after reading the blurb that reminded me of Orange Is A New Black, which I am a big fan of: the book is about the life of inmates in a low-security mixed genders prison. Apart from the general prison setting, I didn't really know what to expect from Though We Have No Merits, hence I went into it with an open mind.
This book deals with the spiritual and psychological journey of inmate Zolly Berns, a Jewish man from Chicago.. . . . . the character of Zolly and his psychology were dealt with in-depth. The background theme of whether he was innocent or guilty animated the whole book, which I liked a lot and I think was not over-done in this book.
The themes of crime and spirituality meshed perfectly in this book. In fact, Zolly turned to law and religion, both from friends' advice and by praying, to understand who was in the wrong and what he was comfortable doing to return to normal life. Ultimately, during all his time spent in prison, Zolly reflects whether personal truth or self-interest is more important to him. He does this in multiple ways but the struggle is ongoing all throughout his incarceration. The constant duality of this character and his need to stick with his decision once he's made one is what made Zolly so interesting. Reedsy Discovery (https://reedsy.com/discovery/book/though-we-have-no-merits-dick-carmel )
I can never get enough Chicago literature, so getting a tip about this book soon after I finished R.D. Rosen's "Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder, Inc. and the Rise of the Modern NFL" must have been kismet. We all know the Second City is built on remnants of the Fire, but we owe a debt of gratitude to writers of Mr. Carmel's ilk who continue to illuminate the sinister side of our "Great Streets." Walking north on Rush not long after I finished the final chapter, I swear I could hear a new melody in the air. Though the main character seals his fate in FMC Lexington during the High Holy Days, the name Zolly Berns shall be forever inscribed in your Book of Chicago whenever you happen to read "Though We Have No Merits". Jonathan Safron, Chicago
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