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.

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