The Good Book: You Can’t Win
Statement of the Grand Inquisitor: There are few good books. You Can’t Win by Jack Black, a forgotten memoir of the 1920s is a very good book. For that, we honor it.
This Jack Black is not the doughboy hamming it up on your DVD. This is a much better Black. You Can’t Win is the autobiography of a Limonov-like Missouri town boy (they’ve done well for themselves, Missouri town boys, in the literature business) who decides to become a criminal, a Yegg. He describes Hemingway’s men without women with all that Hemingway lacked, humility and humor. And his killing scenes are better too: “You was a good bum once, but you’re dog meat now.”
Best of all are the scenes in San Francisco’s Chinatown, back when it meant something. Chinatown was so suffused in opium smoke, he says, that the smell drifted all through the city. Chinatown was where the smart yegg bought his guns, because the Chinese black market did a thorough, trustworthy job. Black is that exceptional nineteenth-century white American who loves and appreciates Asians:
“I’ve had a lot of dealings with Chinamen and never got the worst of it from one. If a Chinese doesn’t like you he will keep away from you; if he does like you he will go the route.”
Black is curious, reminding us that Americans were once a jaunty, nosy, confident people, eager to see the world. He spends evenings in the worst “wine dumps” in the Tenderloin just to watch the “purple faces” rot. He describes tenderly the rituals of Hell:
“When they could drink no more or buy no more they staggered or crawled to a bare space on the floor in the back of the room where they lay on their backs in a row with their heads to the wall, each with his hat over his hideous, purple, bloated face. The porter-cook-wino watched the sleepers carefully. When he thought they had ‘slept it off’ enough to stand up, he roughly kicked them to their feet and herded them out into the streets.”
Black is immune to the virus of American Calvinism, reading that other, much less good book “with interest but without profit” when his drunken, pious, brutal Scot jailer refuses him any other reading material.
From the Paradise of the opium den to the Inferno of the wine shop, from the noble, hated Chinamen to the loathsome solid citizens, Black gives a quiet and modest tour of the American afterlife. Simply to read him and remember that there were once modest and stoic Americans is balm, but it is his simple, honest inversion of the standard drug hierarchy that makes him most valuable to us now, in our worst hour.
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