Friday, November 12, 2010

"You Can't Win," Jack Black (1926): Winner take nothing

"Jack Black calls his book You Can't Win. Well, who can? Winner take nothing."
-- William Burroughs, 1988

This autobiography of the outlaw and convict Jack Black, which Burroughs recalls from memory as "the Good Red Book," is a documentary of life lived against the grain. It came as a shock and a revelation when it was originally published in 1926 during the Roaring 20s -- his tales of poverty and deprivation as a youth, and then as a young man, ran counter to the prevailing image of America as a land of wealth and excess. Originally published in serial form in The San Francisco Call, the book became a best-seller, going through five printings and gaining the attention of social reformers like Lincoln Steffens. Its success propelled Black into a brief literary career that included a play based on his experiences and then a film contract at MGM writing screenplays for $150 a week.

The picture of Black as a literary figure and upright citizen is too simple, though. Those who found the Folsom Prison ex-con extremely well-read probably didn't know he had used his prison years to read the entire
Encyclopedia Britannica three separate times learning "to play Society's game." Or that he got his 25-year sentence by shooting a man in a botched hold-up in Golden Gate Park in what one biographer calls "a one-man San Francisco reign of terror." His prison years were spent developing a network for survival, a patchwork of favors done for favors received, that extended years after his release. This underworld had its cast of prison"yeggs" and, just as important, people whom Black calls "the Johnsons" --those who are as good as their word, and keep their promises.

"Some of my debts had to be paid in kind, and no one could help me. I owe my life to a thief who risked his life to get me out of jail. He smuggled me saws to open my cell, then came in the night to cut the bars out of the window and lifted me through the hole when I was so weak from tuberculosis I could barely walk. ... Years afterward, when I had cured myself of the dope habit and served my sentence, won immunity from the law, and was just beginning to feel a little secure in my respectability, my telephone rang in the small hours of the night. A woman's voice asked if I was 'Mr. Black,' and said 'I have a message from Eddie ... of course, you know I can't give it over the phone. Hurry.' I didn't know what had happened but I knew another debt was due."

Once he got out of prison Black seems determined never to go back, and this is where You Can't Win develops its themes of reform and resurrection. Though he found a respectable life full of "too much hypocrisy" and said he never cared for it, for a short time Black became a police reporter and then circulation manager of The San Francisco Bulletin. He was befriended by members of the Progressive movement who urged him to write about his hardscrabble life and prison experiences in order to promote prison reform, and You Can't Win -- first serialized asBreaking the Shackles -- was the result, a modern pilgrim's progress full of crime and punishment -- and redemption.

"I am sure but of one thing -- I failed as a thief and I am luckier than most of them. I quit with my health and liberty. What price larceny, burglary and robbery? Half my thirty years in the underworld was spent in prison. Say I handled $50,000 in the fifteen years I spent outside; that's about nine dollars a day... 'what chance have you now?' I would ask any young man, 'with shotgun squads, strong-arm squads, and crime-crushers cruising the highways and byways; with the deadly fingerprinting, central identification bureau, and telephotoing of pictures; and soon every police station broadcasting ahead of you your description and record?' Then consider the accidents and snitches -- what chance have you? Figure it out yourself. I can't."

"I was fascinated," Burroughs writes in his foreword to the 2000 reissue of You Can't Win, "by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming-houses, pool-parlors, cat-houses and opium dens, of bull pens and cat burglars and hobo jungles." The book made such an impression on Burroughs that he used some of Black's characters like Salt Chunk Mary, and even his language word for word. "When you can remember a passage of prose after fifty years it has to be good," he writes. Here's a passage from Burroughs's late novel Place of Dead Roads:

"A two-story red-brick house down by the tracks in Junction City, Idaho. Salt Chunk Mary, mother of the Johnson Family ... train whistles cross a distant sky. Mary keeps a pot of pork and beans and a blue porcelain coffee pot always on the stove. You eat first, then you talk business, rings and watches slopped out on the kitchen table. She names a price. She doesn't name another. Mary could say "No" quicker than any woman Kim ever knew, and none of her no's ever meant yes. She kept the money in a cookie jar, but nobody thought about that. Her cold gray eyes would have seen the thought and maybe something goes wrong on the next lay. John Law just happens by, or John Citizen comes up with a load of double-zero into your soft and tenders."

The fame, and the money, was fleeting. Jack gave his talks on crime and prisons under the auspices of the League to Abolish Capital Punishment, which Clarence Darrow had started. Only his lecture fees were "keeping him out of the soup kitchens and breadlines," he wrote. His pride, or something like it, would not let him seek the charity that was becoming part of the Depression of the 1930s. Speaking engagements became fewer, and the royalties from You Can't Win dried up.

He had once told friends that if life got too grim he would tie weights to his feet, row into New York Harbor and drop overboard. This seems to be precisely what he did in 1932: Black vanished. His watch was found in a pawnshop pledged for eight dollars; it had been his prize possession, a gift from an ex-con he had helped. For his friends this became definite proof that he had been as good as his word to the end.

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