All Monte Carlo

James Francken

  • On the Yard by Malcolm Braly
    NYRB, 438 pp, £8.99, March 2002, ISBN 0 940322 96 X

Born with a silver spoon, Malcolm Braly became a mouthpiece for the no-hopers and might-have-beens in America’s prisons. He was inside for almost twenty years and finished On the Yard (1967) in the final few months of his stretch. It was an unlikely career for a novelist, though Braly, who took a dim view of his success, never seemed surprised, certain that his fate had been forecast from the start. His father ran a West Coast automobile agency in the 1920s, a blue-chip business that folded with the Crash. Braly was five years old; in no time he was fingered as a sneak, a show-off and a thief. False Starts (1976), Braly’s remarkably moderate and candid memoir, never hymns his childhood unhappiness: his parents left, first his mother, soon after his sister was born, then his father, and Braly ended up in a Catholic boarding-school north of Seattle. Together with a cluster of friends, he began to steal. The boys collected milk and soda bottles from the dump to turn in for deposits, but when the supply of empties dried up, they nicked bottles from neighbourhood garages, then progressed to back porches and finally made it into a kitchen, taking milk from the icebox and tipping it down the sink. ‘At a certain age most boys steal,’ Braly admits: ‘most also stop. I didn’t.’

In his teens, he turned his hand to bigger things. He was a sucker for the latest fashions; although he knew the shortages of wartime entailed forbearance (there was the example of the dowdy English princesses whose various uniforms looked as if they had been made from blankets), new clothes gave him a heart-pumping thrill. He may have been hard up, but he wanted several cashmere sweaters, a dark blue jacket and a pair of saddle shoes. Late one night he broke into a dry-cleaner’s and took everything that fitted. It was dark in the shop and the booty was disappointing, for the most part the kinds of suit old men would wear to church, but he was pleased with a gabardine coat he picked up. Unfortunately, he ran into the owner of the coat in a pool hall a few months later, a student who had reported the theft of the coat from Nelson Cleaners and was able to identify a cigarette burn on the hem: the police had their burglar. There are a welter of coincidences and head-to-head encounters in the memoir, Braly tending to cast himself as the hopeless chancer. He fumbled his way through reform school before circumstances began to carry him in and out of prison, more often in than out.

Impatient and guileless, he was easy meat for other crooks. A friend roped him in to do a job on the home of a wealthy Hollywood producer – ‘all we had to do was walk in and fill our pockets’ – but the producer was broke and Braly got six years for a 35 cent robbery. There were more desultory crimes to come. He robbed a large suite of dental offices hoping to find hundreds of dollars squirrelled away; he came away with 11 bucks which he lost in the escape. Unable to buckle down and make a go of things, he stayed on the move, drifting like Huck on the river from one situation to the next, resurfacing in prison. He was middle-aged when he was finally released, a ‘young/old’ man who had spent most of his adult life banged up and who knew little about the outside world; his memoir looks back on the experience ‘in the form of a journey, a long and often difficult voyage through the life of our times, which, finally, finds the grace of a safe harbour’. He settled in Southern California, but there would be no early retirement in the sun for the long-term con: he died in a car accident at 54.

Braly approaches his bad fortune with indifference: if life is ‘all random, all Monte Carlo’ then there can be no guarantee of happy days. There is something a little too guarded in all this; Braly’s equanimity can bring interesting thoughts to a drab end: ‘I no longer brood over the right or wrong of what was done to me – it happened.’ In many ways, his honesty and restraint seem impressive – he makes no attempts to be redeemed by the reader. But his matter-of-fact narrative works like a blind, diverting attention away from the difficult question of why these things happened. Braly shrinks from problems that might mess with his head: a ‘psychological labyrinth’, he calls it, ‘where we can wander circuitously for ever and catch no more of the Minotaur than his smell’. So it never becomes clear why he kept on getting into tight spots, though the memoir does let in a little light on the recidivist’s bad habits, his recalcitrance, his need for there to be a system to kick against and his low threshold for dissatisfaction, the recklessness that made him take the gabardine coat: ‘If I could have been patient I might have made a life for myself (I felt this was always true) but I was bursting with urgency and the world was filled with things I wanted.’

Paul Juleson, one of the central characters in On the Yard, ends up in a funk because he shares Braly’s impatience: ‘Nothing had ever come to him as quickly as he had expected and he had always grabbed.’ Juleson is an old lag in San Quentin State Prison, near San Francisco; he had expected a five-dollar birthday cheque from an aunt in Washington and been advanced a box of Camels by Billy Oberholster, the biggest of the prison’s lenders, with the promise of the cheque as surety. Juleson smokes his cigarettes, but the cheque never arrives: ‘You fool, you fool, he told himself . . . his aunt was an old lady, any number of things could have happened to her during the year. But you couldn’t wait, could you?’ There is no one he can tap for money. Juleson has a month to make the repayment before one of Oberholster’s short-fused debt collectors will run him off the yard.

More than thirty years on, Braly’s prison novel holds up well – Jonathan Lethem’s introduction to this new edition considers it ‘the novel prison needs’. You could complain that it circles too close to Braly’s own experience, that Juleson, in particular, is too obviously an authorial stand-in. His Italian wife, Anna Marie Patello, is the give-away: her mother had rushed the couple into a marriage ceremony with ‘close to five hundred people, only a few of them known to Paul’. Braly himself hooked up with Vitoria Russo, the eldest daughter of an immigrant family from Genoa, because ‘her mother became excited and immediately sent out several hundred wedding invitations . . . this became the reason we had to get married.’ But Braly shares a likeness with any number of his characters, doling himself out in a book that never lets on where its sympathies lie. The restless narrative moves from cell to cell as different prisoners are given a stab at telling their stories: Jim Nunn, ‘one more small grey malcontent’, back in San Quentin after only six months of freedom because the wheels came off on the first hard bump; Lorin, in the clink for Grand Theft Auto, a lost, thoughtful, movie-struck young man who busies himself writing poems and making a scrapbook from magazine snaps of Hollywood cheesecake (Kim Novak is a favourite); Willard Manning, on the slide at 44 – ‘he was soft and his wind was going’ – fermenting in prison, guilty of the statutory rape of his stepdaughter.

On the Yard is careful not to insulate the reader from San Quentin’s brutalities or to leave too much to the imagination: its characters’ failings are displayed, the case against them nailed. Early on, Manning comments that the prison cells ‘reminded him vaguely of exhibits’ and there are passages in the novel which open up like cabinet curiosities, with Braly as curator; only a few of the characters on show – most often the walk-ons – seem counterfeit. Braly’s memoir recalls an early story he had tried to write for Reader’s Digest; it was dross, a weak attempt to peg a man he had met in Nevada State Prison: ‘I said he “had a smile as broad as a Jack O’ Lantern and a heart as big as his head.” I don’t know what he was really like.’ He has a similar problem in On the Yard. His efforts to vary the texture of the novel by laying on lurid detail seem shameless; when he tries to get up the thoughts of the most violent prisoners, the writing is poor. In a paragraph which is meant to come from inside the head of a prisoner on Death Row – a man who has been convicted of the rape and murder of two women, both in their sixties – the characterisation is confected and the prose trivialises the crime: ‘They goin fry my ass like a egg, but man, man, man, them grannies was good.’ This gush plays up to the worst expectations of prison life, mirroring the fantasies of the outside world. Yet Braly can be sensitive to the dangers of an easy collusion between a novel and its audience; in one scene in On the Yard, he shows up the unreconstructed members of a Masonic lodge as they listen to the liberal prison warden make a speech: ‘they expected theatre – stories, pictures of grotesques and human curios.’ The warden lets them down; the novel is more convincing when Braly lowers the temperature and avoids cheap, condescending laughs.

Writers who have done time tend not to exploit other cons in their fiction; it must be difficult enough to bring prison to life without having to settle old scores in print. There may be plenty of seed material for the novelist inside – the tradition of prose writers with a record goes back as far as Thomas Malory – but confinement can put the kibosh on creativity (Cervantes, who was locked up for his incompetence as a tax collector, pretends that Don Quixote may seem ‘dry’ and ‘shrivelled’: it was ‘born, after all, in prison’). Braly soft-pedalled on suggestions that his writing might be compared with the established literature of prison life: in his memoir, he argues that the writers he was likened to ‘were all political prisoners, as most writing prisoners have been, and their intentions directed them to a higher level of sincerity’. He seems to be thinking of prisoners of conscience like Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn, though neither finished anything in captivity; like Boethius, Bunyan and Wilde, Braly wrote about prison when he was inside.

His novel is impressive, though it would be a mistake to island the achievement: the rise of postwar American prison writing had some bearing on his success. Chester Himes, imprisoned in Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery, published his autobiographical novel Cast the First Stone in 1952, but it was at San Quentin Prison that things came to a head. San Quentin had an unusually progressive warden, Clinton Duffy. (Braly’s memoir spells out Duffy’s achievements: ‘he brought in the movies, the school, the hobby programme. He began many of the major reforms which later became pilot programmes for the entire nation, and thousands of men have done easier and more productive time because of him.’) ‘Bibliotherapy’ was among the biggest of the changes he introduced to aid prisoner rehabilitation: inmates were encouraged to read and write. For Herman Spector, the prison’s librarian, the programme became a pet project: in 1957, when 18 per cent of the American public used a library, Spector produced a report to show that 90 per cent of San Quentin’s prisoners were borrowing books. Braly didn’t have much use for the librarian – ‘a strange, obsessive man’ – and avoided his Great Books Discussion Group, which met each month ‘to chew over Plato, Augustine, Aquinas and other heavies’. But bibliotherapy seems to have sharpened the interest of other prisoners; San Quentin encouraged an implausible string of wannabe writers.

Writing was a consolation; it was better than notching the walls, at least for some of the men. One inmate got tied up ‘writing anti-drug crap for teenybopper magazines. I found a format that you couldn’t stop. I had the perfect combination: “I used drugs and it put me on Death Row” . . . I’d have to get loaded to write it, it was so nauseating.’ Others fared better: Caryl Chessman, Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson let rip in books which offered brawny rejections of disciplinary thinking. American publishers developed a taste for prison writing and newspapers responded: the New York Times Book Review noticed Braly in its column on detective fiction, ‘Criminals at Large’. Nothing like this happened in Britain. The stories of the lags over here have been told as autobiography: books like Jim Phelan’s Jail Journey (1940); John McVicar’s McVicar by Himself (1974); Jimmy Boyle’s Sense of Freedom (1977). When Boyle set down his experience in a novel, Hero of the Underworld (1999), the central character was already out of prison and back on the streets. According to the papers, Jeffrey Archer, now prisoner FF8282, is finishing a novel about prison life. Maybe first-hand experience will help him to improve on his earlier efforts; it would be hard to do worse. In Archer’s Twelve Red Herrings (1994), Richard Cooper, an ambitious businessman, is forced to cool his heels in Armley Prison, wrongly accused of murder. It’s tough inside, but he is cheered up by the solidarity among the other prisoners, who share in his sense of injustice: ‘my fellow inmates banged their tin mugs against their locked doors, the traditional way of indicating to the prison staff that they believed the man leaving for trial was innocent. Like some great symphony, it lifted my soul.’ Cooper wants their support, but has a funny way of keeping in with the lads: ‘Prison might have turned out to be far worse if it hadn’t been known by my fellow inmates that I was a millionaire . . . Every morning the Financial Times was delivered to my bunk.’

No one is well-to-do in On the Yard, though Billy Oberholster – Chilly Willy to his few friends and many enemies in San Quentin – lives the high life: ‘by convict standards he was a millionaire. In various places throughout the institution he had approximately three hundred cartons of cigarettes.’ Cigarettes, like the Camels he lent to Paul Juleson, are only one part of his business. Chilly sells nasal inhalers, manufactured with amphetamine sulphate in their cotton wads; a convict could swallow the wad to put some lead in his pencil. When Juleson explains that his birthday money never arrived and that he will have to default on the loan, Chilly goes off the deep end: ‘his restless displeasure had found a focus. Most of the things Chilly hated were safe from his anger, but here was this superior fool walking the yard like he was no part of it.’ Chilly cracks; Juleson is in trouble. I don’t want to blab the plot, but it comes as no surprise when their two narratives intersect in violence.

Chilly gets others to do his dirty work for him. Society Red is his most biddable, admiring stooge. Red is sobering down to middle age in prison, a shifty man without much pep. Chilly rides roughshod over him; Braly also ribs the character, making light of the large ears which jut from his head ‘like the handles of a loving cup’:

It was his disfiguring ears that were altered first. One of the pioneer prison psychologists developed a theory that inmates who suffered such comic deformities formed compensatory mechanisms, of which their various felonies were merely symptoms, and their rehabilitation needn’t be sweated out in the stone quarry, making little ones out of big ones, when it could be found under the knife of a cosmetic surgeon. Society Red was scheduled, with a dozen others, for plastic surgery, which it was hoped would leave him free to be as honest as anyone else.

The paragraph’s target is the jumped-up psychologist, not Red’s incriminating ears; Braly was a fan of ‘reality therapy’ and On the Yard debunks San Quentin’s fascination with psychologists, psychiatrists, correctional counsellors and psychometricians. By the end of his final prison term Braly had seen it all: the psychologist who argued that boys stole cars because they were acting out a symbolic return to the womb; the personality test with twelve hundred statements which needed to be answered with a yes or no (‘I would like to be a flower arranger’; ‘If I were a reporter, I would like to cover the ballet’; ‘If I were a reporter, I would like to cover sporting events’; ‘I would enjoy the work of a forest ranger’; ‘I would like to write poetry’).

Braly thought of himself as a folklorist of the San Quentin yard and his novel never offers up the whole truth: he retouches memories of the past and lays up nostalgia for the future. But he has an ear and eye for the forgotten parts of prison life, which the novel sets out in faithful detail: prison blankets, ‘washed once a year – in a week they lost their scent of freshness, in a month the dust puffed when they were sharply slapped’; Chilly, standing for a bloodless moment at the bars to his cell (‘he held there as routinely as a commuter holding to a strap on a crowded bus’); and the unexpected sentences that wrap the novel up, as Chilly finally blows his cool.