The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On the Bum: You Can't Win by Jack Black

I just finished the perfect book for my Memorial Day road trip, You Can't Win by Jack Black.

The book is the memoir of a hobo/vagabond and career criminal whose life on the road spanned 30+ years from the post Civil War-era (some of his traveling companions were veterans) to the early decades of the 20th century. History with a capital "H" though is peripheral as the author was single-mindedly focused on casing hotels, cracking payroll safes, and avoiding murderous railroad Bulls.

With its complicated, hermetic underworld, and surreal street jargon, You Can't Win was a heavy influence on William Burroughs and the Beats and is a fascinating read. You'll meet fine Americans like "Foot-and-a-Half George", "Salt Chunk Mary", "The Sanctimonious Kid"; methodically learn how to find a mark, rob a house when the occupants are sleeping inside, and dispose of your loot so you can hit the Faro table and score a hypo of opium.

The author was widely read (he was a big user of the prison library) and the book is lucid and engrossingly written. You don't need a historical preamble explaining why the book is important (unlike Asbury's Gangs of New York, which I wanted to love but is much better when excerpted in Luc Sante's Low Life), rather Black will step forward and tell you himself. Sadly we don't know much about the author's life that isn't in the book. The best corroborating evidence to this memoir would be his arrest record but as he never gave the same name twice (and this was the pre- fingerprint era) that information is likely gone forever.

The first edition of You Can't Win commands several hundred dollars but it's still in print and a new or used copy can be purchased from Amazon. Sadly they've changed the cover from the gruesome (and somewhat inaccurate) Joe Coleman painting on the Amok Press Edition (pictured above).

I love historical crime memoirs and exposes of particular, extinct "rackets". They remind me that we're all in a racket or one kind or another (particularly bookdealers....yuck). Hobos definitely had it rough but reading this book made me lament the fact that modern trains are too damn fast and they barely go anywhere besides urban centers which are all more or less the same anyway.


Jef said...

HI - I happen to be translating this book into French at the moment, and I'll spare you the details about how difficult it is to render stuff like "hobo jungles", "chuck horrors" and all those crazy people's names into French!
Great book though, funny to see how Burroughs uses Salt Chunk Mary in The Soft Machine.

William Smith said...

What a great project! I don't read French but I bet it'll be a good fit. American crime/underworld dialect must work well in French since that's were many of the key novels were "discovered".

Haven't read Soft Machine yet. I'll move it up the list.