Out of the legions of neglected books from all the books that have come and gone in all the world, very few return to any kind of currency. Once the book slips out of print, or the generation of readers that made it a bestseller in its day have gone on to the next thing, that title slips quietly into the past. Even if someone puts it up free on Kindle, who’s going to download it, much less ever get around to reading it?
Jack Black’s autobiography You Can’t Win from 1926 became something of a bestseller, taking him from a desk job with the San Francisco Call off to society events and moments of fame in New York City and Hollywood, but by 1932 the run was over and Black slipped away, never to be heard from again. A suicide? A return to life as a hobo and small time criminal, and a quiet death under another name in an unknown town? No one can say.
You Can’t Win got its bulge on lasting fame when William S. Burroughs discovered a copy, committed parts to memory, pirated parts for his first novel Junkie in 1953. When Burroughs made it, You Can’t Win got a toehold on immortality.
If you happen to find one of the early printings for cheap, grab it, but I’m happy with the in-print trade paper edition from AK Press/Nabat, which includes an intro by Burroughs describing what the book means to him, and an afterword with more information, such as:
In the months before the 1906 earthquake Black was apparently a one-man San Francisco reign of terror until he was caught for shooting a man in a botched holdup in Golden Gate Park and got his 25 year sentence.
Yeah, you need it for your San Francisco collection. And you can get a copy easily at Green Apple Books on Clement, where Kevin Hunsanger has been promoting it relentlessly for years — Kevin once told me that Green Apple alone has sold enough copies to plow through entire press runs of the AK Press edition.
I read You Can’t Win in large part for the San Francisco connection, but also for the background on crime in America, since the era Black rode the rails and did the yegg thing dovetails into the period when Hammett worked for Pinkerton’s. For me, it was worth reading, just to happen across the description of the hobo jungle being set upon with the head-breaker crew armed with saps. No question, a classic of crime and the underworld, although I didn’t like it as much as William S. Burroughs apparently did.
I remember one guy telling me how Black dropped cool names of crooks similar to the roll call Hammett trots out in The Big Knockover — Salt Chunk Mary, The Sanctimonious Kid, Gold Tooth. Yeah, Black drops a few handles that evoke the roster of one hundred crooks come into Frisco to rob two banks across the street from each other at Pine and Montgomery, but Hammett names one crook after another, not just two or three. A feat of creativity — or deep knowledge drawn from years working as a detective — that remains unequaled to this day. Anyone who knows of any other author who comes remotely close to equaling that roster of names in Knockover — Toby the Lugs, Old Pete Best, Fat Boy Clarke, the Dis-and-Dat Kid, L.A. Slim (“from Denver”), Bull McGonickle (“still pale from fifteen years in Joliet”), Toots Salda (“the strongest man in crookdom, who had once picked up and run away with two Savannah coppers to whom he was handcuffed”), and many, many more — please let me know. Jack Black isn’t even in that contest.
And if you are a fan of Burroughs or The Beats, you probably need to read You Can’t Win, just for form. I met Burroughs once, when he was doing a signing in City Lights, in company with John Law and Lance Alexander of The Suicide Club, and among other things we asked him about various pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. I was a bit surprised to find that Burroughs knew about Donald Wandrei and his story “The Red Brain” — but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Burroughs was obviously sharper than hell, and what kind of illiterate doesn’t know about stuff like You Can’t Win and “The Red Brain”?