Once described by William Burroughs as his favourite book, Jack Black's You Can't Win is an enduring memoir of criminal rambles on the wrong side of the tracks in turn-of-the-20th century western America--including visits to Vancouver and Seattle. A bestseller upon publication in 1926, it has been reprinted at least five times. As a book that impressed the Beats for its outsiderism, You Can't Win describes contains colourful underworld characters and outlaws such as Salt Chunk Mary, the Sanctimonious and Kid Foot-and-a-half George within a dangerous underworld of freight-hopping, opium, crooked cops and cruelty. Before Jack Black 'settled down' to respectability in San Francisco, where he was befriended by newspaper editor Fremont Older and he wrote film scripts for MGM, he toured mining camps and saloons along the West Coast, surviving by his wits as a burglar, safecracker and stick-up man, and he endured torture and severe beatings in prison. The memoir stretches from boyhood to the Twenties. Black concluded, "I'm not finding fault with these brave days of jungle music, synthetic liquor, and dimple-kneed maids, and anybody that thinks the world is going to the bowwows because of them ought to think back to San Francisco or any big city of 20 years ago - when train conductors steered suckers against the bunko men; when coppers located "work" for burglars and stalled them while they worked; when pickpockets paid the police so much a day for "exclusive privileges" and had to put a substitute "mob" in their district if they wanted to go out of town to a country fair for a week. Those were the days when there were saloons by the thousand; when the saloonkeeper ordered the police to pinch the Salvation Army for disturbing the peace by singing hymns in the street; when there were race tracks, gambling unrestricted, crooked prize fights; when there were cribs by the mile and hop joints by the score. These things may exist now, but if they do, I don't know where. I knew where they were then, and with plenty of money and leisure I did them all." Jack Black vanished in 1932, possibly killed by the underworld.

[BCBW 2005] "Transient" "Crime"

Black, Jack. You Can't Win (1926; AK Press, 2000), foreword by William Burroughs).