Book Review: You Can’t Win by Jack Black

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars. This is a memoir.)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

The gents at my favorite coffee shop are on a roll with the book recommendations, lately.  You Can’t Win was described to me as “the memoir of a hobo turned safe-cracker turned house burglar turned highwayman turned librarian.”  You can probably imagine that I nearly dropped my maple spice coffee (yum) in eagerness to get my hands on a copy.  I ordered one the moment I got back to work, and have ordered another since to give as a gift.  It was just that good.  I want to call the book “inspiring,” but it’s probably a bad idea to immortalize one’s admiration for such a practiced criminal as Mr. Black on the internet.  So let’s just call it a riveting story, told with level-headed clarity and enough rollicking anecdotes to turn Jack Black’s life into a series of adventures well worth re-telling.

America in the early 20th century was a wild and crazy place. Saloons and opium dens were everywhere, housing wayward women and desperate men; bad men; or pretty much any other crooked variety of fella. Prisons were uniformly horrifying – even more so than they are today – and reforms had only just started. People still carried gold money on horseback. And security measures for houses and trains weren’t quite up to snuff. The West, especially, was paradise for train-hoppers; hobos; “yeggs”; stick-up men; gamblers… any manner of folk who made their living going against the law.

Jack Black (an alias, I believe) didn’t start out as a criminal. His story begins with a quite loving description of childhood years at a Christian school. Right off the bat, he ruminates on the lack of a mother in his life, though his portrayal of the nuns who took care of him shows that there was no lack of decent adult influence in his upbringing.

“It has often been a question with me just how much the best of it a boy has, who has his mother with him until his feet are well planted under him; who has a home and influences until he gathers some kind of a working philosophy that helps him to face the world… Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about but the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgment in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.”

Jack’s father, too, is described with respect and care. In fact, I was touched by how Mr. Black’s protective nature towards his father’s reputation and feelings only grew throughout his life of crime, which is why it’s not hard to sympathize with the distance he keeps between them in later, more adventurous, years. Even as a kid, his knack for business and shrewd observational skills get Jack into troublesome learning experiences.

“The books so fired me with the desire for travel, adventure, romance, that I was miserable most of the time.”

Well, it won’t be long before travel and adventure fill Jack’s days, though misery is always snapping at his heels. (As for romance… you won’t find much of it in You Can’t Win. One of many reasons I loved the book.) His first arrest is a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subsequent incarcerations are the unhappy results of more purposeful ventures. Jack Black writes candidly about his resilience in crime, neither apologizing for his misdeeds nor whining openly about the hard life of a roving thief.

I was wrong. I knew I was wrong, and yet I persisted. If that is possible of any explanation it is this: From the day I left my father my lines had been cast, or I cast them myself, among crooked people. I had not spent one hour in the company of an honest person. I had lived in an atmosphere of larceny, theft, crime. I thought in terms of theft. Houses were built to be burglarized, citizens were to be robbed, police to be avoided and hated, stool pigeons to be chastised, and thieves to be cultivated and protected. That was my code; the code of my companions. That was the atmosphere I breathed. ‘If you live with wolves, you will learn to howl.”

Black’s unabashed memoirs are told in a fairly linear fashion, though every now and then he’ll mention the untimely demise of a fellow “yegg,” or write ominously about a future mistake as yet unknown to his younger self during the exploit of the moment. Most cases of foreshadowing lead to reciprocal and gratifying anecdotes later on in the narrative. Jack Black is a good writer: trust that he will reveal the conclusions of any and all story-lines that conclude neatly enough.

Characters – real people, yes, but certainly their colorful personalities deserve the term – filter in and out of his acquaintance as fate (or the judiciary system) lead their paths together and astray. From the first time he witnesses a fellow train-hopper get squashed by the cargo, through partnerships with the likes of “Smiler;” “Foot-and-a-Half George;” and “The Sanctimonious Kid,” Jack is a diligent observer of the attitudes that best suit a man on the road. Charming criminals, hardened ladies who orchestrate connections in crime, and even leaders of bloody prison break-outs take Jack into their confidence quickly and easily. I think that his quiet, unassuming nature serves him well in the field. Reading his recollections has made me want to write careful descriptions of the people I encounter: their mannerisms, their ways of speech, and even the measure of their moral standing. You never know when they might turn up in your life again, fifteen years later, harboring a grudge or willing to spring you from behind bars. Bums and highwaymen tend to have interesting backgrounds of their own accord, but it takes a memory like Mr. Black’s and a simple-but-crystallized handle of the English language to give such individuals real life on the printed page.

His voice never falters into sentimentality or veers towards the arrogance of a man who has succeeded where others have not. Sometimes he needs help, and he is grateful when he gets it. Sometimes he has the chance to assist a fellow disreputable soul, and he does so without expecting congratulations. There were runs of bad luck which made me cringe at the injustice of it all – a real life of crime has no guarantee of satisfaction at the end of several months’ plotting, despite what novels and films would have us believe. But there are still moments of triumph and even unexpected kindness to keep his mind in the game for so many years.

The era of saloon shoot-outs, railroad heists, and sacks of gold has dwindled into our less-thrilling modern age of electronic money and biometrics. I probably wouldn’t like to go through my days in a hail of bullets and a succession of jail cells, but it was awfully fun to read Jack Black’s account of such a life. His subdued good humor and unusually merciful view of human nature have rubbed off on me a little bit. If more “good” people adopted an attitude like this one “bad” man, I think we would all have a better idea of how luck and life all even out in the end.

“A bleak background! Crowded with robberies, burglaries, and thefts too numerous to recall. All manner of crimes against property. Arrests, trials, acquittals, convictions, escapes. Penitentiaries! 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 murderous straitjacket.

“I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts.

“Crime followed by swift retribution in one form or another…

“In those twenty-five years I took all these things, and I am going to write about them.

“And I am going to write about them as I took them –with a smile.”

(Here’s another good review of the book, which helped inspire me to buy it sight unseen.)

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Book Review: A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: ***** (5 stars)

Interesting Subject: **** (4 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5stars)

I got A Walk In The Woods out of the library on a recommendation of a friend who has hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail.  I have hiked exactly none of the Appalachian Trail.  Like Bryson, before he set off on this big adventure, the majority of my wilderness walking experience took place in the UK and Ireland, where you wander damply past glorious cliffs and get battered by the wind.  After the cliffs and the wind and the muck and the moss, though, there was always a warm pub and a spartan youth hostel to be found at the end of a day’s hike.

When Bill Bryson decided to venture into America’s barely tamed mountains for “a walk in the woods,” he was headed into at least 2,000 miles of mostly pub-less wilderness. He would have to camp out, carrying an enormous pack with his stove and tent and food supply up mountains and through the snow.  He would have to brave disorienting extremes in temperature, wild animals, and awkward encounters with his fellow hikers.  How does one prepare for the woodsy unknown?  Bill Bryson starts out with cautious optimism and a wonderfully dry sense of humor about his own limitations.  His research into the Trail’s historical idiosyncrasies manages to make even the dispute of mileage or the preservation of mollusks fascinating.  Upsetting too, sometimes, because nature is seriously suffering from mankind’s meddlesome ways.

Some of the funniest moments in A Walk In The Woods come straight out of Bryson’s imagination.  After reading too many books about bear attacks, he describes in detail exactly how badly he would react in such an encounter, fantasizing horrors before he even sets out on his hike.  I laughed – screeched, really – at the way he phrased his fears, but then I started to worry myself.

“And is 500 certified attacks really such a modest number, considering how few people go into the North American woods?  And how foolish must one be to be reassured by the information that no bear has killed a human in Vermont or New Hampshire in 200 years?  That’s not because the bears have signed a treaty, you know.  There’s nothing to say that they won’t start a modest rampage tomorrow.”

Even as the style of writing kept me in high spirits, I am now twice as aware of how perilous the wilderness would be for a pansy-ass bookworm like me.  But the point is that Bryson read the books full of troubling statistics.  He felt how heavy the pack was and he looked over the disturbingly unhelpful maps of the trail, and then he set out anyway.  I guess that’s how interesting, funny, informative travel books get written.

The descriptions of mountain views in one state and endless tunnels of dense foliage in others really drove home just how extensive the AT really is.  I mean, a walking trail that connects Georgia to Maine?!?  The United States is a collection of so many different climates and terrains, and reading this book reminded me to stand in constant wonder at this land mass I live on.  And the people in along the trail… oh the people…  Bill and his travel buddy Stephan Katz are characters on their own, with Bryson looking for a story in every adventure and Katz providing plenty of inspiration with his ill-prepared; calamitous; yet somehow endearing attitude towards the woods.  But the pair’s encounters with other hikers, as well as with folks back in civilization, left me agog on several occasions.  Mary Ellen is one such gem: a belligerent and judgmental natterer who invites herself to walk with Bryson and Katz for a cringe-worthy leg of their journey.

“I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident that she was a rarity.”

If anyone was going to get devoured by hungry carnivores in this book, I couldn’t help hoping it might be her.  Maybe I’m even less charitable towards my fellow humans than Stephen and Bill felt when they finally abandoned Mary Ellen, but I don’t care.  She’s my very least favorite kind of person, though reading sarcastic remarks about such an individual was pretty fun.  Then there were the boyscout troops and insufferably spoiled, drunk adults who shattered the rugged serenity at various camping platforms.  Meeting these people through Bryson made me almost excited for the day when mankind might die out and leave nature to its own devices once more.  But then some people were kind and restored my hope: dangerously irresponsible teenagers who offer the two haggard hikers a ride, for example, and rangers who light up from within when talking about the scenery they try to preserve.

Bryson does occasionally criticize the U.S. Forest service for flagrant mis-spending of funds, laughable cartography, and even blatant hypocrisy about logging and development.  These faults need to be pointed out, but he retains a sense of humor and genuine love for the trail even while cataloging the institutions relentless obsession with building roads where trees used to be.  Bill and Katz certainly encounter the plenty of misfortune as they play at being mountain men.   (Want to read a book about a fellow who really bids civilization adieu to survive on his own in nature?  Read Elizabeth Gilberts The Last American Man, which I reviewed here.) They come to realize why so many hikers give up after completing only the smallest fraction of the Applachian Trail: the road is long and Nature makes no promises to be hospitable.  But as they push through blizzards and argue over provisions, the boyish enthusiasm for an outdoor adventure always takes over the narrative soon enough.

Bryson has put into hilarious words the wonderment we should all feel when contemplating the American landscape. I highly recommend A Walk In The Woods to anyone who likes conversational, enlightening writing about utterly unique places on earth.  Not much of a nonfiction reader, myself, I happily followed Bryson’s every step and misstep along the path. The hilarious anecdotes, stunning descriptions, and sobering statistics left me feeling like I’d seen a part of the Appalachian Trail.  I closed the book and was surprised to find no mud on my boots, and that the only ache on my body was from trying to hold in my laughter while I read on the library lawn.

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Book Review: Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

This book did not make me happy, it was not a particularly fun reading experience, but it was wonderfully engrossing.  Smith Henderson sure knows how to tell a story.  The little details he included while writing made me feel entirely transported to the impoverished, and often grimy, setting for this big, heart-rending drama.  It’s a long book.  Maybe it could have been a hundred pages shorter.  But even though some pieces dragged on a bit, I got through this larger novel in only two days because I was so curious to see what was going on around Tenmile, Montana. 

In the small, dilapidated town: Would Pete, the social-worker main character, be able to pull together the crumbling pieces of his own life?  His brother’s on the run from justice, his romantic entanglements end in disaster, and he drinks past the point of confusion.  (I thought that some of the female characters Pete meets weren’t given enough depth in their characterization, but this could just be a reflection of his own misjudgements.)  And what will happen to the messed-up families Pete visits for his job?  He genuinely cares about these kids who need his help, but there’s not much to be done, in such hopeless environs, for people who have nearly given up hope themselves.  The scenes in Tenmile showed a bleak reality behind the quaint picture I used to imagine when thinking about the vintage Midwest.

In cities and streets across various state lines: Would Pete’s thirteen year old daughter make it on her own? Would she make ithome intact? She ran away from her alcoholic mother, and her dad wouldn’t have been much help either.  As Pete says to his ex-wife at one point: “I take kids away from people like us.”  Rachel starts calling herself Rose and tries to act as grown-up as possible, but she soon finds herself in all sorts of gritty peril.  Other runaways and alluring boys are quick to take advantage of her wayward state.  This plot line was told through a series of questions and answers, like in a social services interview.  Rachel’s voice was determined and more hopeful than most, but her future looks bleak.  Sadder, still, is the fact that Pete knows what sort of trouble she could get into.  He sees it every day in his work.  And yet he’s still powerless to bring her back. 

And then, the most interesting — most American — series of questions arose from the woods and caves and rivers around Tenmile.  What’s up with Benjamin Pearl, the feral little boy who brings Pete into the woods, where he and his father live? Jeremiah Pearl is mesmerizing and dangerous: a survivalist who believes the end times are rapidly approaching.  He and his son live in the woods, denying most outside help, guarding against strangers, and asserting that American money will soon be useless.  Benjamin likes Pete’s company, even though the Pearls never quite trust the social worker, and after a while Pete spends more time camping, walking, and talking with the family.  Jeremiah Pearl may be covered in dirt and firing bullets into conspiracy theories, but his freedom and conviction appeal to Pete’s curiosity.  But curiosity leads to darker questions: Where are Benjamin’s siblings and his mother?  Why do they think the end times are coming?  Is the little boy really safe with his father, who is religiously harsh and could endanger them in the elements?  Are the Pearls part of a bigger, more threatening conspiracy than Jeremiah’s rebellious distribution of defaced currency and warning shots in the woods? 

The final questions were the strongest and most compelling part of Henderson’s book.  The Pearls, and the stories about them, reveal a specific American culture which I’ve only ever encountered through exaggerated caricatures until now.  Even as I dismissed Pearl’s ravings as extremism, I could understand how some people get drawn into the fervor of paranoia.  Especially in an area which the government tends to neglect until they need to come in with guns a’ blazin’.  The mystery of Jeremiah’s past, the uncertainty of Rachel’s future, and the desperation growing in Pete’s present circumstances kept my interest in Fourth Of July Creek, but the setting and tone will stay with me even longer than the plot.  Montana in the 1980s.  Who would have ever thought I’d voluntarily read 500 pages about people there?  I guess I’m getting more curious, with age, about the strange lands within my own borders. 

The characters I met in and around Tenmile have broadened my horizons a little, and made me 100% certain that a life in social work is not my cup of tea.  Even with all of Pete’s bad decisions and terrible coping skills, his sympathy for struggling people kept me sympathetic to his own tribulations.  When I slammed the book shut, at the heart-breakingly ambiguous ending, I wanted some assurance that everyone would be ok.  I may not these character’s lifestyles and beliefs, but they all just want hope and I wish that there would be enough to go around.

I recommend this book for fans of the vivid rural atmosphere in that show True Detective, violence and sorrow and grit included.  People who are comfortable facing the tragic realities of disastrously unstable families.  Anyone with little interest in conspiracy theories, or curious about the extreme characters who really do see the wrath of god in our near future.  This book is definitely for adults only, as very bad things happen to young people and those bad things are described without flinching.  Maybe it’s not the sort of book you want to cram into your suitcase for a vacation, but once you get into the story you’ll be constantly thinking about Tenmile, Montana until the very last page.