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Jack Black is Back: the triumphs of a renegade

You Can’t Win

Jack Black

Nabat/AK Press, 2000 (republished)

"My first act was to read the rules," wrote Jack Black, decent-criminal-turned writer, describing settling into his prison cell, "This was prompted by curiosity to learn just what I was up against, rather than a desire to learn and obey."

Jack Black’s You Can’t Win was first published in 1926 and became an instant best seller. It was the favorite of Beat writer William S.Burroughs, who called it the "Good Red Book." Republished this year by Nabat/AK Press, it recounts the largely unknown history and language of the downtrodden and stomped upon at the turn of century.

Black winds himself through 30 years of the hobo underworld, riding the rails throughout the Western United States, from Seattle to Salt Lake City. He becomes the apprentice to an array of trustworthy criminals, from Foot-and-a-half George to the Sanctimonious Kid. He learns the trade of intelligent and honest thieves.

Black joins the ranks of the Johnson family- the name taken on by bums of the era, probably because there was so many of them. Bums, he reminds us, is not used in a "cheap or disparaging sense. In those days it just meant any kind of traveling thief." The thief is celebrated for his ability to survive out side the confines of Society. Being a thief is dignified, a choice one makes rather than work and toil for another. No apology is offered.

"Society represented law, order, discipline, punishment. Society was geared to grind me to pieces. Society was the enemy," recounts Black. The Johnson’s had their own code of conduct outside of Society and "had character because, while they did wrong things, they always tried to do them in the right way and at the right time…. The thief who pays off borrowed money, debts, or grudges has a good character among his fellows; and the thief who does the reverse has a bad character."

In one instance, Black describes robbing from a workingman. He "ordinarily wouldn’t have given him a look, but I was broke, hungry, wolfish." Black freed the man of some money and "left some silver in his vest for him to get a drink with when he woke up."

It is this kind of character that has you cheering Jack Black on to victory. You smile as he escapes from jails and prisons and feel his triumph after a hard day’s work.

Black ends the book with an indictment of prisons and punishment. He experienced flogging while in prison, and describes how it "hardened" him. "As a punishment it’s a success: as a deterrent it is a failure.

"I believe that one who has been brutalized can be turned right by an act of kindness and be regenerated," he writes, adding later, "kindness begets kindness and cruelty begets cruelty." He would be dismayed at the stronghold that the policies of cruelty have in the criminal ‘justice’ system today-where even teenagers are seen as hopeless, unfit for rehabilitation. He deplored cruelty and knew it lacked worth.

In the end, Black gives up the underworld not because he "knew it was wrong" but in order to keep his word to a man who did him a favor. He writes his autobiography 13 years later after taking up a job and working for a wage on another man’s terms. "In thirteen years I have learned to work- some day I may learn to like it."

It is always from these types that the good fight is fought. As for me- count me among ‘em. I’d rather dance with the tenant than dine with a landlord, or sleep with a bankrobber than be in the mere presence of a banker. Hell, I’d rather pick a pocket than have a pocket to be picked. Besides, who’s the real criminal?

As Jack Black recounted his thoughts after stealing from a man with plenty, "I gave no thought to the burglary. It seemed right that I should have a coat and food."