You Can't Win

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Long before William Burroughs was a gleam in anybody's eye, Jack Black was hooked on opium and gave himself the cure. Long before Kerouac wandered the continent in search of defiant thrills, Black had mastered the art of travelling for free and companioning with burglars, safecrackers, confidence men and bums.

Jack Black

Reviewed by Nathan Keene

Thursday, April 12 2001, 11:44 AM


Long before William Burroughs was a gleam in anybody's eye, Jack Black was hooked on opium and gave himself the cure. Long before Kerouac wandered the continent in search of defiant thrills, Black had mastered the art of travelling for free and companioning with burglars, safecrackers, confidence men and bums. Not only did he inhabit America's unauthorized underground in advance of these and other followers, Black probed its psyche and explicated its philosophy with greater authentic clarity than generations of criminologists, journalists, and chroniclers of the fringe before or since.

Black's prose rings clear as crystal and hits the back brain like a straight shot of rye. Burroughs, in his forward to Black's memoir You Can't Win, just re-issued by AK Press after nearly eighty years, acknowledges how half a century after discovering it as a boy, "I was to use characters and scenes from the Good Red Book" in his own Junky, "quoting the prose of Jack Black from memory, occasionally word for word, and when you can remember a passage of prose after fifty years, it has to be good." Ever want to know where Burroughs got the Johnson Family? Read Jack Black. Black's epic of illicit folklore follows his own life from youthful adventures with the wrong crowd through his development into a career criminal, his brutal passage through the early 20th century penal system, his addiction and eventual liberation from opium, and his rehabilitation as a librarian, lecturer and writer. The AK Press version includes an enlightening Afterword and a prison reform piece Black wrote for Harper's Bazaar after the initial runaway success of his book in the late 20s.

In both his story and his later writing, he examines the renegade heart with a sympathy, grace and humanity whose influence on the Beats is instantly recognizable. The outsider rebels, Black insists, because he sees no other way of affirming his identity in a world that has rejected and wounded him, often physically. Further, the more he is hurt through denigration and punishment, the more enraged he becomes. Black tells of his own overwhelming hatred for everything representing the social norm after being flogged in a Canadian prison, and of his murderous crime spree upon release from Folsom, where he was straight-jacketed on the floor for days on end in an attempt to coerce self-incrimination. Black's cogent and forceful critique of America's approach to criminal justice is as relevant in this era of three strikes laws and massive incarceration of the poor as it was to America's awakening social conscience in 1926.

Yet it would be too easy to characterize his stance as a counter-cultural paean to the rebel and the outlaw. Unlike such self-made outsiders as the Beats, Black did serious time and suffered serious inhumanities as retribution for a lot of serious shit that he did to people. Like many authentic criminal memoirs, his writing is woven with a persistent pattern of remorse and regret for a life he would not have chosen in retrospect. On being orphaned, he comments that "It may not mean much to the average chap to say: 'John, I want you to meet my mother.' To me it means more than I can put on paper." After a passage in which he speculates that, had he applied himself to a stable and conventional life with the same zeal he showed for robbery he would be independent and respected instead of isolated and penurious, there is as much wistfulness as there is satisfaction in his closing insistence that "I have no money, no wife, no auto. I have no dog. I have neither a radio set nor a rubber plant -- I have no troubles."

Originally titled Breaking the Shackles, this memoir and its attending article reveal perhaps the most important aspect of many outsiders' emotional lives, and the most easily forgotten: a longing to be accepted and acknowledged by society, to be given the place they've been denied. After decades of urging crooks to go straight and the rest of us to stop dehumanizing them and help them to reform, the author fell upon hard times. Aging, his writing out of vogue, penniless and alone during the Great Depression, Jack Black apparently drowned himself. What he left is a testament that should live on.

You Can't Win is available from AK Press 

Copyright © 2001 by Nathan Keene. All rights reserved.
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