‘You Can’t Win’: A Journal of (Not) Murder

Jack Black is why we have William S. Burroughs.

Burroughs read ‘You Can’t Win‘ as a young teenager. It hit him at the right time and possessed sufficient quality to be one of the transformative creative works of Burroughs’ life, and heavily influenced Burroughs’ semi-autobiographical book Junky.

After reading both of them, you can see it. For Black, his opiate addiction is an ancillary fact of his (criminal) life. As an outside observer, the effect of his taste for ‘hop’ probably motivated him more in his immediate actions than he tended to admit in print, and Burroughs certainly corrected that when he wrote his own book about addiction and the struggle to get free of it.

But Burroughs was a man born into a wealthy family, and he always had that to fall back on.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the major Beat Generation writers is how Jack Kerouac, the poorest and Catholic, wrote what has become the most accessible works: On the Road. Allen Ginsberg, middle class and Jewish, wrote poetry from the outside of society that pushed boundaries but still found widespread success. Burroughs was rich, and Burroughs didn’t need to be a writer, so Burroughs could write stuff like Junky and Naked Lunch that didn’t really have to sell.

Black’s mother was dead, so he couldn’t even leech off her the way Kerouac did his mother. Black’s father put his son in a religious school then mostly ignored him till Black found his way to criminal life and a series of surrogate fathers like ‘The Sanctimonious Kid’ and ‘Foot-and-a-Half George’. When Black rode the rails or spent time in jail, he had no one to fall back on to take care of him. His was not an exciting vacation that he could exit to go live in Mexico City or Marrakesh when whe liked. Hoboing and yegging was his life, with no escape.

The real contrast I noticed, then, is not the self-drawn one between Black and Burroughs—whom we have to be thankful to for keeping in print the book that so fascinated him as a 13-year-old boy. The real contrast is between Black and his near contemporary Carl Panzram.

Their upbringings and way of life were quite similar: abusive boarding schools, hoboing, burglary and armed robbery, and ultimately prison. Due largely but not entirely to the latter, both came to the conclusion that brutal, punitive attempts at correcting behavior achieved the opposite. If you do something wrong and are violently, excessively punished for it, the lesson is that society is unfair, violence and power rule, and the mistake is not the immoral behavior but the actions that led you to be put under the control of someone with greater power. If you possess any power, you’re licensed to abuse others with less.

Confession-seeking interrogations that were really torture, starvation and sensory deprivation for minor infractions, and pure sadism like face-covering straight-jackets and intentional neglect of broken limbs tend to make people more hateful of the norms of society than conciliatory to them.

Panzram became a self-loathing, universal misanthrope whose only ambition was maximum rape, murder, and destruction of his fellow humans. All the brutality and ‘discipline’ directed at him only reinforced that feeling. It was the one act of trust of him, being given freedom and status by a prison warden, that shook his worldview to the core. He failed that trust by leaving the prison grounds to go get drunk, and thereafter was punished worse than before, but he felt guilty about it in a way he didn’t for sodomizing young boys or shooting innocent men in the back. Probably, it was his last chance to be a functioning member of the species.

For Black, the moment of change came after 20 years of criminality—from a judge taking a chance and giving him leniency he didn’t deserve. To that point, everything was a game. He screwed over society because it screwed him over. Police manufactured evidence to frame him; he bribed court officials to get off. But someone staking their reputation on his good behavior was revelatory. For the rest of his life, Black kept to the straight and narrow.

The primary difference between the two men was their first experience with the outcasts of society.

It may only be that Panzram ran away from his family still a boy and Black was a teenager but by the standards of the day a young man, so better able to protect himself. In any case, the first hoboes Panzram met got him drunk and raped him, reinforcing the idea that everywhere and in every society, might made right.

By contrast, Black met a pair of hoboes who taught him the ropes of life ‘in the jungle’, what to say, how to act, and what to avoid. Earlier than that, Black had the experience of police officers being capricious, arresting him in the middle of a fix-up Black had nothing to do with simply because he was there. In the jail, Black met a prisoner who treated him decently and made sure he was taken care of. On the outside, Black eventually met criminals who lived by a certain code and put a premium on loyalty. He behaved in accordance with the code, and throughout his life was rewarded for it. Black had an alternative to the horribleness and hypocrisy evident in polite society where Panzram saw only more of it.

Panzram has a portion of his memoir where he sneers at the idea of a code of silence or honor among thieves, but that’s likely because he never managed any attachments with anyone else. He surely saw enough examples of people betraying their code to save themselves decades more behind bars, but Black gives examples of how the mores of the underbelly of society are just as strictly monitored. He outgrows them eventually but in a nuanced way. Black was part of something larger than himself, willing to help and be helped by others. Panzram couldn’t stop hating enough to enjoy his own company.

You Can’t Win is fascinating in part for being a description of a world that no longer and can no longer exist. Container cars mean no one can ride them anymore; even if you did, state-issued IDs are required to accomplish anything. The idea of jumping back-and-forth across the Canadian border, giving different names at each stop is not possible any more, and won’t be again barring the apocalypse.

But as Black points out, the ‘good ol’ days’ of his era weren’t so good, and the roughest stuff from when he was a young man committing petty larcenies and armed robberies no longer existed when he was writing about them, no doubt for the better.  We’ve been wanting to Make America Great Again since the 1850s, and been reminded almost as long that when you look close enough, there have always been the equivalent of opium and wino dens, and pitiless robbers lurking at the fire’s edge.

I don’t have a good segue, or any way to tie this in, but it was amazing to me that Rose Wilder Lane was the ghostwriter for this book. Surely, Black was a good storyteller and afterward he wrote some decent essays, but Lane shaped all of those stories into a cohesive narrative the same way she did her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories for Little House on the Prairie. What a peculiar effect to have on two strains of American writing: sanitizing the nastiness of pioneer life to be accessible, and bringing the nastiness of the American underworld to a popular audience.

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