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You Can't Win Paperback – April 1, 2001
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Top Customer Reviews
When you read Burroughs' foreword to this edition of `You Can't Win', it hits you that he didn't (as you might assume with a favourite book) reread the book regularly. Rather, he memorised the book as a boy, and then throughout his life `read' the version memorised in his own mind. Even the passages that Burroughs quotes in the foreword aren't word-for-word precise (I compared them with the text of the book proper), because they've been committed to myth and memory, and are recited in ritualistic fashion.
All of which aside, `You Can't Win' deserves to be known as more than just `the book that inspired Burroughs'. It's written in a plain, unsentimental style which has as much in common with the writing of Charles Bukowski as it does with the Beats - a style of writing which reached its apotheosis with `The Grass Arena', the harrowing autobiography of the British alcoholic vagrant John Healy. (Now, someone should teach a literature class comparing `You Can't Win' and `The Grass Arena' - THAT would be an inspiration.) What these writers have in common is that when you read them, you instantly think: `Now this is good, compelling, uncluttered prose.'
Many of those who have posted reviews below rightly praise Jack Black's memorable language and characterisation, which make `You Can't Win' into a kind of turn-of-the-century lexicon and encyclopaedia of the life of American thieves and hobos. But I was even more struck by Black's remarkable resolve, self-dependency and moral fortitude, and above all his categorical refusal to feel sorry for himself, or to let the reader feel sorry for him.
Three passages in the book in particular, all of which concern prison, are horrific - two passages in which Black is punished by flogging, and an absolutely unbearable passage in which he is tortured in a straitjacket by a sadistic prison warden. If these passages had been written by a lesser writer, I could not bear to read them. But Black takes the reader firmly by the hand, conveys what happened to him, and moves on.
Describing the first flogging: `It would not be fair to the reader for me to attempt a detailed description of this flogging.... If I could go away to some lonely, desolate spot and concentrate deeply enough I might manage to put myself in the flogging master's place and make a better job of reporting the matter. But that would entail a mental strain I hesitate to accept, and I doubt if the result would justify the effort.'
Describing the second flogging: `To make an unpleasant story short, I will say he beat me like a balky horse, and I took it like one - with my ears laid back and my teeth bared. All the philosophy and logic and clear reasoning I had got out of books and meditation in my two years were beaten out of me in 30 seconds, and I went out of that room foolishly hating everything a foot high.'
Describing being tortured in a straitjacket: `Every hour Cochrane came in and asked if I was ready to give up the hop. When I denied having it, he tightened me up some more and went away. The torture became maddening. Some time during the second day I rolled over to the wall and beat my forehead against it trying to knock myself out. Cochrane came in, saw what I was doing, and dragged me back to the middle of the cell. I hadn't strength enough left to roll back to the wall, so I stayed there and suffered.'
Black opens the book with a description of his own face, and fittingly enough, there is a photograph of him near the front of the book. Many times while reading `You Can't Win', I found myself flicking back to look at that careworn, yet amiable face, and picturing Black's exploits in my mind. The afterword to this edition, which outlines Black's life after the book was published, is equally fascinating - I was moved almost to tears to read that he simply vanished in 1932, and was strongly suspected of having tied weights to his feet and thrown himself into New York Harbour.
Of course, `You Can't Win' is a unique and priceless document of a bygone American era. But lest you find yourself feeling nostalgic for this way of life - as readers are prone to feel, whenever they read vivid descriptions of times before they were born, and as William S Burroughs is certainly guilty of feeling in his foreword - Black cautions us against precisely this kind of nostalgia (and ironically, uses an irresistibly romantic description of the past to do so):
`I'm not finding fault with these brave days of jungle music, synthetic liquor, and dimple-kneed maids, and anybody that thinks the world is going to the bowwows because of them ought to think back to San Francisco or any big city of 20 years ago - when train conductors steered suckers against the bunko men; when coppers located "work" for burglars and stalled them while they worked; when pickpockets paid the police so much a day for "exclusive privileges" and had to put a substitute "mob" in their district if they wanted to go out of town to a country fair for a week. Those were the days when there were saloons by the thousand; when the saloonkeeper ordered the police to pinch the Salvation Army for disturbing the peace by singing hymns in the street; when there were race tracks, gambling unrestricted, crooked prize fights; when there were cribs by the mile and hop joints by the score. These things may exist now, but if they do, I don't know where. I knew where they were then, and with plenty of money and leisure I did them all.'
In the end, Black urges us to stick to the straight and narrow, rues the path that brought him to morphine and state penitentiaries. Indeed, throughout the narrative, Black sprinkles cautionary paragraphs intended to discourage would-be imitators. But there's such a streak of enthusiasm and nostalgia running through Black's book that it's hard to believe that he regrets most of what he did. The stuff that he REALLY regrets seems to be what's left out - and there's a lot left out. That period he "terrorized" San Francisco - according to the afterword - his shooting of an unarmed man, the drug business he subsequently set up in prison.
Black's world is extremely moral, if not above the law. There's a strong sense of loyalty running through the book, and an ethical hierarchy, at the bottom of which lie "stool pigeons" and "double crossers," and at the top are the reliable men who keep their word and pay their debts. Those who make the cut, who play by the unwritten rules of lawbreaking and loyalty are the "Johnsons," the family of thieves.
No wonder those literary poseurs, the Beats, glommed onto this book as an instructional how-to, not as a cautionary tale of morality. The Beats were attracted to the underworldly anti-establishment characters, the bums, the hobos, and the fences. In the introduction to "You Can't Win," William S. Burroughs takes Black's message further by adding a second category in opposition to the "Johnsons," the "poops." (Using a different word, of course, which won't pass Amazon's censorship.) Either you're a "Johnson" or you're a "poop," Burroughs says, and with a swooping unJohsonlike gesture indicts everybody who prefers work to thievery.
Black himself would reject the notion of casting most of us into "poopdom." He had great respect for honest people, even those that he robbed. Sure they might be a bit slow, but they often plied a trade, bothered no one, and lived fulfilled. He blamed his own inability to keep straight on some mysterious internal defect, refusing to praise or justify his violent past.. Burroughs, of course, born into a life of priviledge and wealth, and who chose to squander his advantages on drugs and self-entertainment, prefers to justify his own excesses (including the shooting death of his wife) and grab onto the title of "Johnson," as if it were a badge of honor.
But putting my attacks on the Beats aside, the importance of this book lies in its examination of criminality. What makes a criminal? How can we keep young people from growing up into a life of crime? Although Black provides us with few answers, he gives us the example of his own life. He claims that his experiences in prison made him more of a criminal, and that the aggressive response of law enforcement officials to his deeds pushed him further into crime. It was the prison strait-jacket treatment that turned him bad, that put him behind a gun, that made him dangerous. And it was a judge's act of kindness that convinced him to reform. In order to cut down on vicous criminals, Black suggests more leniency on first-time offenders, more job opportunities and support for ex-cons, and an end to the death penalty and other cruel punishements.
After meeting a man who's been there, who walked on the other side of law and order, after getting to know, respect, and like the man, it's hard to argue with that conclusion. Those behind bars are people, not animals, machines, or rocks. And let's face it, in recent years our prison and police system has only created more criminals, not to mention caused the deaths of hundreds of men and women.