You Can't Win (book)
First edition cover
You Can't Win is an autobiography by burglar and hobo Jack Black, written in the early to mid-1920s and first published in 1926. It describes Black's life on the road, in prison and his various criminal capers in the American and Canadian west from the late 1880s to early 20th century. William S. Burroughs and other Beat writers said the book was influential. It was made into a film in 2015.
The book tells of Black's experiences in the hobo underworld, freight-hopping around the western United States and Canada, with the majority of incidents taking place from the late 1880s to around 1910. He tells of becoming a thief, burglar, and member of the yegg (safe-cracking) subculture, exploring the topics of crime, criminal justice, vice, addictions, penology, and human folly from various viewpoints, from observer to consumer to supplier, and from victim to perpetrator.
"You Can't Win" originally appeared in serial format in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin under the editorship of Fremont Older. It was so popular that it was reissued in book format by MacMillan and became a best-seller. It has since been translated into Russian, Swedish and French, among other languages.
After the book's publication, Black spent several years lecturing at women’s clubs and lived in New York. Black spent his summers in a cabin on Freemont Older's property in California, next to a pool. When MacMillan asked Black to write another book, he was too weak even to swim, according to Mrs. Fremont Older. He didn't write another book.
Themes and analysis
The main criminal activity of Black's life and of the book is thievery, which leads to discussions of various technical aspects of the thief's "trade", including casing of prospects (surveillance of targets), safe-cracking, fencing of stolen goods, the disposal of evidence, maintaining aliases and avoiding attention or traceability, the social networks of criminals, the experiences of being arrested, questioned, and tried, and the experience of doing time in jails and prisons.
The vices and addictions Black discusses include alcoholism, abuse of opium (hop), gambling, prostitution, and stealing. In his own telling, Black does not seem to have an especial weakness for addictions (for example, he did not become alcoholic himself), but he does describe the addictive allure that gambling and opium held for him in various stages of his life. He expresses an opinion that drug addiction is more psychological than physical; nevertheless, he also admits that breaking himself of a daily opium habit was the toughest battle of his life.
Themes that Black explores through anecdotes from his life include:
- Doing time in jails and prisons (and sometimes escaping from them)
- The criminal justice system, including eluding arrest (and failing to elude it), fixing cases (which can be done from both sides, defense and prosecution), and the futility and self-defeat of penal systems that breed more criminality than they punish or prevent
- The "wall" that criminals often sense between a law-abiding lifestyle and a law-breaking one
- Pity, pride, and contempt, including the professional pride that some criminals feel in their "work", and the contempt that law-breakers and law-abiders sometimes feel for each other
- Carelessness and hypocrisy among both criminals and noncriminals
- Self-discipline or the lack of it
- Conscience, motivations, habit, and the vagaries of chance
William S. Burroughs first read the book when he was 13 years old and cited You Can't Win as influential in his life. He uses the book's style and stories in his 1953 book Junkie. The book was republished in 2000 in the Nabat series of radical autobiographies, by AK Press, with an introduction by Burroughs.
- Black, Jack. You Can't Win. New York: Macmillan Company, 1926. Foreword by Robert Herrick. OCLC 238829961
- _____. You Can't Win: the Autobiography of Jack Black. New York: Amok Press, 1988. Foreword by William S. Burroughs. ISBN 0-941693-07-4 OCLC 153562506
- _____. Du kommst nicht durch. Berlin: Kramer, 1998. ISBN 3-87956-240-7 OCLC 75910135
- _____. You Can't Win. 2nd edition. Edinburgh: AK Press/Nabat books, 2000. ISBN 1-902593-02-2 OCLC 44737608
- _____. You Can't Win. [s.l.]: BN Publishing, 2007. ISBN 956-291-509-3 OCLC 187421471
- Cora Miranda Baggerly Older (1955). "Biography of Fremont Older". Museum of the City of San Francisco. Retrieved February 17, 2015.
- Sutherland, Edwin H. (ed); Conwell, Chic (pseudonym) (1937). The Professional Thief: by a Professional Thief. Annotated and Interpreted by Edwin H. Sutherland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. LCCN 37036112.
- "You Can't Win (2015)". IMDB. Retrieved January 23, 2015.
- Adam Chitwood (April 18, 2012). "Michael Pitt to Write, Produce, and Star in Adaptation of YOU CAN’T WIN". http://collider.com. Retrieved January 23, 2015.