You Can't Win

by Jack Black. New York: Macmillan Co.. 1926. xiii+394 pp. $2.00.
FOR brief summary of You Can’t Win one can hardly do better than quote the author: —
‘A bleak background! Crowded with robberies, burglaries, and thefts too numerous to recall. All manner of crimes against property. Arrests, trials, acquittals, convictions, escapes. Peniten tiaries! I see in the background four of them. County jails, workhouses, city prisons, Mounted Police barracks, dungeons, solitary confinement, bread and water, hanging up, brutal floggings, and the murderous strait-jacket.
‘ I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts.
‘Crime followed by swift retribution in one form or another.
‘1 had very few glasses of wine as I traveled this route. I rarely saw a woman smile and seldom heard a song.’
It is a good thing that many law-abiding people are reading this remarkable autobiography of an ex-criminal, thirteen years removed from the criminal class, but in his time us complete a criminal as any seeker for authentic information could desire. The effort of organized society to protect itself from the outlaw element may reasonably gain power from understanding the enemy, and in this book the reader meets and mingles with criminals almost, one might say, as he meets and mingles with actual friends and acquaintances. He will very likely begin to think that this underworld can no more be expressed adequately by statistics and psychological theory than the upperworld in which he lives himself. He will observe that among the lawbreakers, as among the law-abiders, youth often drifts into a means of livelihood that maturity follows from force of habit, knowing nothing different. In this community of crime Mr. Black lived and ‘ worked’ for some thirty years (fifteen of them in this prison or that). Jesse James died just before the beginning of this period, and it ended before the advent of the automatic for murder and the automobile for escape.
‘In the underworld,’ says Mr. Black, ‘one has good or bad character as in any other layer of society. The thief who pays off borrowed money, debts, or grudges has a good character; and the thief who does the reverse has a bad character. Thieves strive for good character and make as many sacrifices to keep it as men do anywhere else. A burglar can have friends, but he has to pay his room rent or he will lose them, and they will despise him.’
Jack Black, potential criminal, had character, and this was recognized by three criminals of character in his first prison, whence followed his induction into the vocation of crime, and, for that matter, his reformation thirty years afterward. It is significant that these three criminals stood out from the miscellaneous prison population. Of one of them he says later, they were then working together at safe-breaking, — ‘George, although past fifty, never spoke of quitting. I doubt if the thought ever entered his mind. He was as much attached to his trade as any carpenter or bricklayer, and went about it as methodically as any mechanic.’
Having started this book, I for one was unwilling to stop before I had finished it. I shall read it again, and recommend it to others as an autobiographical thriller — the honest story of a real criminal. Mr. Robert Herrick, writing the introduction, finds ‘the most depressing fact in criminology that the present book illustrates’ is that ‘ the criminal is almost always of an inferior mentality. It is only a superior mentality such as Black’s that can survive and ultimately win to freedom.’ This evolution of a right-thinking mentality in a wrong-thinking environment gives authenticity to the narrative. A prison library did much for Jack Black toward the ex-criminal status. Prison brutality temporarily hardened and strengthened him as a criminal. The book, as Mr. Herrick says, is ‘well worth reading and pondering upon. Besides, it is entertaining, because unvarnished and unpretentious.’ Sincerity has perhaps created art; at any rate the lawabiding reader will never come nearer feeling like a burglar at work.