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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Summer Camp Rec: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (if you liked The Fault In Our Stars)

Oh, right, summer camp is a thing… And the season is upon us! All of a sudden, school is out and young people are being shipped off to learn how to despise teamwork, or shoot arrows at hay bales, or bathe in bugspray to no avail. At least, that’s what I remember about my own experiences at Girl Scout camp so very long ago. I also remember the one hour of “me time” each afternoon, when we would hide in our mosquito netting and write letters to other friends at other camps, read, or nap. I always ran out of books halfway through the week and had to write my own stories for the remaining muggy, buggy days. There’s a strange joy in hiding in one’s sleeping bag – nearly suffocating – to read with a penlight after everyone’s supposed to be asleep.

These past few weeks I’ve had a parade of kids, teens, and parents coming to the bookshop to stock up for a week or month of summer adventures away from home. I guess quiet breaks are still part of daily life, and electronics aren’t encouraged at a lot of camps, so entertaining books are in high demand! Huzzah! Occasionally, I get asked for recommendations, either by kids who just don’t know what to read next or by parents who aren’t sure what would fit comfortably with their child’s interests. This is pretty much my favorite kind of question to get at work.

So, if you’re not sure what to pack for a few weeks away from home, I’ve got some suggestions. I always ask, “What’s the last book you/your kid really liked?” before I recommend something.  (Tip to parents: talk to your damn kids!  Find out what they’ve actually enjoyed reading!  You might find that they’re not such mysterious creatures after all.) Over the next few days, I’m going to post some of my favorite books to add to kids’ overstuffed backpacks, based on the most popular requests.

 

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If you liked… The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene

tfios

Ok, so this book is absurdly popular right now.  I liked it very much when I read it a couple of years ago (though I like Green’s An Abundance of Katherines better, because it’s so freakin’ funny).  But it’s a little weird that everyone is either heading straight for this book or looking for something just like it.  I guess this means the movie was good?  (I haven’t seen it yet but I should.)  Or a lot of customers have heard all about it and just have to know what made their friends talk so passionately about fictional teenagers.  When I’m asked for a book similar to The Fault In Our Stars I try not to limit my suggestion to only more John Green books.  People can work that out on their own.  My current favorite book of a similar theme and genre is Cammie McGovern’s book Say What You Will.

a.k.a. Amy & Matthew for all you British readers

a.k.a. Amy & Matthew for all you British readers

It’s another realistic YA novel with an actual believable romance between characters dealing with real-life stuff beyond the average high school drama.   In his senior year, Matthew gets a job helping out a girl in his grade with cerebral palsy.  It’s a big deal for him to do something like that, since his unrecognized OCD symptoms make certain parts of daily life really difficult.  But Amy liked the fact that he wasn’t so falsely up-beat around her as most everyone else, and asked him to give it a try.

As for Amy, she wants to have a year of school without an adult aide following her around everywhere. Matthew was right: it keeps her from making real friends.  Amy needs help with her mobility and uses a computer to communicate, but she’s smart and funny and tired of being “an inspiration” to people who don’t really know her.  With Matthew and her other new helpers, Amy hopes to make actual friends who could get to know the real her. High school social life isn’t so straightforward as Amy imagined, though, and the characters she meets through Matthew and the others are all going through their own difficulties, some more nicely than others.  Amy’s knack for understanding other people makes her want to help Matthew work through his mental illness and confront the parts of himself he tries to silence.  As they reveal more of their true selves to one another, Amy and Matthew run the risk of falling too hard and shattering the most important friendship in their lives.

I like Say What You Will for several reasons.  First of all, disabled characters as actual characters!  And not only does Amy have a vivid personality, she expressly reacts against peoples’ pity and falseness around her when they don’t know how to behave through their discomfort.  Reading her thoughts makes it clear that patience and effort are the most important thing when trying to relate to people – not false cheeriness.  The interactions between Amy (whose disability is immediately apparent), and Matthew (who tries to hide his inner turmoil) are honest; with all the hidden angst and sharp humor you would expect between two smart teenagers.

In fact, pretty much everyone seems real and human.  There are no real villains in this book, just people who make the wrong choices, or (even worse) people who are doing things for all the wrong reasons.  Teenage characters totally steal the show, like they do in John Green’s books, but the grown-ups have their own moments and mistakes here, too.  It’s a great illustration of how everyone’s just trying to get by the best they can, and how important it is to tell people that they’re important to you.

But it’s not just an introspective character study: there’s drama and miscommunication, prom disasters, smuggled booze, cinema hide-outs, and embarrassing technological malfunctions.  A great deal of Amy and Matthew’s communication exists through e-mail and text, since they’re often separated and talking doesn’t always come easy to the couple.  Near the end of the book, one crisis after another makes it seem like everything might fall apart.  But, unlike in everyone’s favorite Tragedy Of The Summer up there (even though The Fault In Our Stars actually came out in 2012), the stars are a little kinder to our sweet couple in Cammie McGovern’s book.

Teens who liked the complex teenagers making their own damn [hard] decisions in TFIOS will probably appreciate the imperfect but thoughtful characters in Say What You Will.  Those of you who want to read more about young people struggling through difficult experiences – doing so without the author throwing them a pity-party – will find a careful and heartfelt depiction of what it’s like to live with extra obstacles in every single day.  Say What You Will takes place over a year and then some, so it’s not technically a summer book.  But it would make a great camp read because the characters are addicting – readers will want to hang out with them some more and find out what they do next – but the story is realistic and touching and fun.

No unexpected horrors lie within these pages, so you won’t be hearing scary noises outside your cabin at night unless there really is something out there.  (Sorry, campers. Noises are part of the fun, but your books don’t have to make it worse.)  And the summer scenes are pretty wonderful: lots of sneaking around behind  meddlesome parents’ backs.  So, you know, real stuff.  Just written into a touching, funny, strong story.  Pack a second book if you’re heading away for a week or more, though, because Say What You Will is a fast read which will be over too soon once you become a part of Amy and Matthew’s friendship.