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You Can't Win Paperback – April 1, 2001

4.5 out of 5 stars 87 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

William S. Burroughs was born in St. Louis in 1914. He is best-known work is 1959's "Naked Lunch"--which became the focus of a landmark 1962 Supreme Court decision that helped eliminate literary censorship in the United States. Described by Norman Mailer as one of America's few writers genuinely "possessed by genius," he died in 1997. His many other works include "Junky" and "The Place of Dead Roads" (Picador).
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 279 pages
  • Publisher: A K Press/Nabat Books; New edition edition (April 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1902593022
  • ISBN-13: 978-1902593029
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #74,404 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I first discovered Jack Black's `You Can't Win', as I suspect many readers did, when I found out that it was William S Burroughs' favourite book. Until I read it, though, I couldn't imagine just how big an influence it was on Burroughs - who drew upon its style, and the code of honour it describes, for the entirety of his writing career.
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.
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Format: Paperback
This edition of You Can't Win is the edition I did in 2001 for NABAT Books/AK Press and STILL IN PRINT. Bnpublishing ripped out the introduction by William Burroughs, the article from Harper's Magazine that Jack Black wrote about crime and prisons that I added, and my afterword, and republished it as their book. They didn't change the layout, typeface or anything else so for example their version starts with page 15. Don't buy this ripped off version !! Buy the complete and much more attractive version by NABAT/AK Press !! Oh yeah. It truly is a splendid book, kind of a bible of alienated outsiderdom. (I posted this review at the bnpublishing version of You Can't Win. I see it can now be found at the Nabat/AK Press version too. That's the version you should get: You Can't Win
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Format: Paperback
"You Can't Win," is an entertaining romp through the underworld of the American West at the beginning of the twentieth century, although the book masquerades as an anti-crime and prison reform tract. Sparsely written, yet thoroughly picturesque and descriptive, "You Can't Win" was written by Jack Black, burglar, safecracker, stick-up man, and penitentiary kingpin gone good. Traveling through a world of saloons, mining camps, and raucous western cities like San Francisco and Seattle, Black brings to vivid life a world of the 1900s we rarely see in textbooks.
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.
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Format: Paperback
An amazing little autobiography of a criminal from a forgotten time in american history. Jack Black was a burgler, safe-cracker, highwayman and petty thief from the late 1800s to early 1900s. His autobiography gives an amazing view to the underworld of those days; from the train-hopping Johnsons, bums and Yeggs of the hoboe community, to the chinese Opium houses, to the riotous wine-stews, to the straitjacket weilding jailors, to the characters; such as the righteous amazonian fence "Salt Chunk Mary" or the polished, erudite, ultra-smooth burgler "The Sanctimonious Kid." Heady stuff. And true to boot. I have a soft spot for criminal autobiographies of earlier eras. Of all the ones I've reviewed (or read in general), this one is far and away the most compelling. The world Jack Black evokes for us is radically different from anything we've ever heard of before. It is old world. It is modern. There is an entirely foreign and very complete kind of slang, intensely satisfying as a cultural object in itself. Jack Black himself was an amazing writer; his characterizations were powerful and full of flesh.
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