01 May 2017

A Gangster Finds God

Ernie Hollands with Doug Brendel
Toronto: Mainroads Productions, 1987
A stolen car took me there. Hollywood was a grotesque paradise for me, with wide streets lit up  in neon, hundreds of peep shows where a guy could see a pornographic movie for a quarter, fifty cents if it was really raunchy. Teenage boys and senior citizens seemed to keep the place in business. Roaming the sidewalks were real-life versions of the girls in the porno flicks, painted-up prostitutes, some barely into their teens, others obviously pushing fifty. And liquor flowed freely everywhere.
Ernie Hollands is a smalltime crook looking to make it big in Hollywood. He thinks that pulling off heists in Tinseltown – as opposed to, say, Moose Jaw – will make him "someone with class, with clout, with a great reputation." Things don't go quite as planned. His first few days are wasted whoring, drinking, and selling stolen wristwatches. Eventually, he sets his sites on a Hollywood Boulevard grocery store: "They were doing big business, with customers swarming the aisles, and cash registers ringing like church bells, as the cashiers took in fives and tens, the twenties, the mounds of ones."

Ernie plans to rob the place after hours, then use the money to plan a big bank heist – "something to get real headlines." Because he'll be needing food as he works out the details, Ernie decides to shoplift from the very same supermarket. What he doesn't bank on – sorry – is a cop watching behind a plate of one-way glass. The cop stops the crook, patts him down, and finds a loaded .38. They struggle. The gun goes off:
My eyes fell on the policeman's leg. The wound, just below the knee, was pumping blood furiously. I was mortified.
     "Take the gun!" I shouted, holding the weapon out to him. "Take the gun!"
The cop grabs the gun with one hand, "grasping his bloody leg" with the other:
"I should put a bullet tight through you," he growled, and I knew he was serious. In the pit of my stomach, I was sick to see what I had done. And, in the moment, my whole life – all forty-two years of it – made me sick. I had accomplished nothing, I was little more than a wart on society's skin. I was slime. And this seemed to prove it to me, finally.
     "Go ahead," I replied as I stared down the barrel of the gun. "You'd be doing me a favor."
An autobiography that reads like a pulp novel, Hooked begins with the author's final crime – then flashes back to his childhood. There's nothing to envy. The son of a sixteen-year-old mother and forty-seven-year-old father, Ernie grows up surrounded by siblings in a two-room
Ernie Hollands at 17
Halifax slum house. There was only one pot to piss in. At age eight, Ernie learns that his parent's affection can be bought by shoplifting food and booze. A bit of an entrepreneur, he steals bundles of newspapers left on the curb for carriers and sells them at a discount in all-night restaurants. Ernie was a hellion at school, which gave mean Mrs Toblin an excuse to pull down his pants and give him the cane.

He ends up at the Halifax Industrial School – more of a prison, really – from which he makes his first great escape. What happens next is a bit of a blur. Ernie moves between Canada and the United States, picking pockets, shoplifting, and breaking into homes of the affluent. Every once in a while he gets caught, is sentenced, and then manages to escape. You'd almost think someone was looking out for him.

If there is a problem with Hooked, it is that its author has too much to confess; his crimes are so numerous, and the book so short, that not many are gone into in any detail. The one I remember most involves jewelry. Somewhere in the States, he teams up with a drunk to rob the home of a couple who own a grocery store. Their eighteen-year-old daughter stumbles upon the scene and is locked in a closet. The sound of her pounding on the door has Ernie realize that she's wearing a ring – which turns out to be an engagement ring – and so he opens the door and takes it.

Shows what a right bastard he was.

Ernie remained a bastard for many of the years that followed, and he kept getting lucky breaks. He has to serve only one year for shooting that Hollywood cop. After that, Ernie is extradited, and ends up in Millhaven, where his reputation as a cop-shooter brings considerable respect. Life is pretty good: "I had a radio, earphones, cigarettes, plenty of food, numerous books". The inmates are encouraged to take up hobbies – painting, needlepoint, sculpting – but none of these appeal. Eventually, he settles on fly-tying, and quickly develops a reputation as a master. Sports shops take notice, as does the press – "Time Flies Tying Flies" is the headline in the Toronto Star – and it isn't long before Ernie is raking it in:
I was making two or three thousand dollars a month, all tax-free. The taxpayers of Canada were paying my way, providing my housing, my utilities, my meals, my entertainment. I sat in my cell, smoking cigars by the case, watching television, reading filthy magazines, tying flies, and counting the money.
Those words appear on page 113 of this 146-page autobiography. The thirty or so pages that follow would have come as a surprise had the book's cover not promised a dramatic "before and after" saga I have ever read. What follows lives up to that grand claim.

Hoping to flog his wares, Ernie writes to Grant Bailey, the owner of a Pembroke, Ontario sporting goods store. He gets no order in response, but two religious tracts, along with a lengthy letter in which the storeowner recounts his journey to accept Jesus Christ as his Saviour. Ernie strings Bailey along, which unleashes a steady stream of tracts and books. Ultimately, they have the greatest effect:
On March 12, 1975, at two a.m., I got out of bed and I knelt in my cell in Milhaven Prison. I held my Bible and I raised my hands in the air. With tears streaming down my face, I let Jesus set me free.
The beginning of a remarkable scene, it's very well described in the book, but I much prefer Ernie's account from a later appearance on 100 Huntley Street:

I admit to being cynical about such things – can we agree that the percentage of crooks amongst evangelical preachers is very high? – but I've seen nothing to suggest that Ernie didn't leave crime behind. He married a widow, adopted her children, and at age fifty fathered his first child. He also founded Hebron Farm, an institution dedicated to helping ex-cons reenter society.

Hooked has an interesting structure in that the pages dealing with Ernie's redemption and Born Again life are so few. It's much more about crime than Christ, though the latter wins out in the end.

Ernie Hollands died in 1996, at the age of sixty-six. A smalltime crook who looked to make it big, he died a bigger man.

The critics rave: The only reviews I've seen for Hooked are the three on the back of the book itself. Two are provided by men associated with Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International, an organization that was new to me. The  third comes courtesy of John Wesley White:

I've written about Dr White's own books many times over the years – Arming for Armageddon, Thinking the Unthinkable, and Re-Entry – and can attest that his literary criticism is superior to his music criticism. Yes, once you pick Hooked up you will not get stopped.

Object: A cheap 145-page mass market paperback. I found my copy, a third printing, five years ago at the Stratford Salvation Army Thrift Store. Price: $1.00. Signed.

It came with a colour postcard of the Hollands family. Suitable for mailing.

Access: If information in my copy is to be believed – and I see no reason to doubt – 270,000 copies of Hooked were published in the first four years of its release. I've seen a later video in which Ernie pegs the number at a held-million. Not surprisingly, it is being sold online for as little as one American dollar. A crooked New Hampshire bookseller hopes to get US$96.71. At US$6.98, the lone signed copy is the one to buy.

Hooked is still in print, and can be bought directly from Hebron Ministries for eight Canadian dollars.

Library and Archives Canada has a copy, as do Portage College and something called Theolog in Vancouver.

I've seen two translations, French and Spanish, though Hebron Ministries informs that there are also Russian and Chinese translations in circulation.

I have no reason to doubt.

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