Rick Ollerman's intro to False Starts by Malcolm Braly, our February release:
False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons
“Each morning you know where evening will find you. There is no way to avoid your cell. When everyone marched into the block you would be left alone in the empty yard. Each Monday describes every Friday. Holidays in prison are only another mark of passing time and for many they are the most difficult days.”
—from False Starts, by Malcolm Braly
Following in the footsteps of men such as Jack Black and Jim Tully, prisoners and writers both, Malcolm Braly started out free but quickly fell into a sort of trap. He was born in Portland, Oregon in 1925. Like Black and Tully, Braly was cut adrift by his parents, in his case by a father who ran out on him and a mother that eventually simply gave him up. All three of these men grew up in the system, all three of them left it, and all three of them took up various degrees of the criminal life. Most importantly, all three of them grew up to write about their lives and experiences. They’ve given us the words that summon their ghosts.
Black was born in 1871, Tully in 1886. All three came from the same sort of broken families, all three took to the road early in life. But out of them all, only Tully avoided becoming the hard-core sort of criminal embraced by Black and later by Braly. They began their vagabond careers by taking to the road and falling in with the characters who rode the rails, both the bums and the hoboes, and had turned their backs on conventional life. Tully likes to tell us the difference between hoboes and bums is that hoboes, or ’boes, will work, and bums will not. However close a distinction this may be, it is the bums that turn to heavier lives of crime. Begging, burglary, theft, holdups, safecracking—these are ways not only to make money, but serve as training to become true vocations. And once taken hold, all too often they become the young vagabond’s only picture of life.
Tully found his love of books and literature early and this is perhaps what saved him from following the same path as Black before him and Braly afterward. He is often credited with founding the “hard-boiled” school of writing, which brought him notice by such men as H. L. Mencken, founder of Smart Set magazine, and later of that immortal pulp, Black Mask.
In his autobiography, False Starts (1976), Braly wrote, “The frontier is gone and the moon is a dead rock, but the dream of our old freedom dies hard.” This echoes Jim Tully, who in his first volume of memoir, Circus of Life (1924), said, “He sees the moon, yellow ghost of a dead planet, haunting the earth.” The difference between the two statements is that by the time Braly had written those words, he had spent nearly twenty years in various prisons.
It wasn’t until 1967 that On the Yard came out, bringing to Braly a certain amount of celebrity, including television and magazine appearances. The longshot he had long ago decided to take in prison had well and truly paid off. Felony Tank was published in 1961, Shake Him Till He Rattles in 1963, and then It’s Cold Out There in 1966. In 1976 his autobiography, False Starts, was published, sandwiched by novelizations of a pair of movie scripts (The Master in 1973 and The Protector in 1979).
Aside from a short story called “An Outline of History” (about a sort of prison experiment gone wrong) that appeared in Thomas M. Disch’s 1973 anthology Bad Moon Rising, Braly’s writing career was over. In April of 1980, Braly was involved in a traffic accident in Baltimore, Maryland. He was dead at the age of 54.
“I had served more time for a handful of inept burglaries than most men would have served for killing a police officer, and the prison, which I had hated so deeply and scored so bitterly for its every failing, was only my chosen instrument in the willful destruction of my own life.”
—from False Starts, by Malcolm Braly
Both the novel On the Yard as well as his memoir False Starts will live on as classic examples of both the “prison novel” as well as the memoir. Braly’s relatively small body of work will last because it is real. The characters are based on real people, their actions based on real actions, their consequences based on real consequences. One can’t help but wonder what Braly would have written as an entirely free man, a writer who may have finally been able to shed all of his ghosts.
For Jim Tully, writing was quite possibly his pass away from being more than the occasional jailbird. He moved to his literary career much earlier in his life than either Jack Black or Malcolm Braly. Jack Black reflected on why he hadn’t been able to go straight. In You Can’t Win, he wrote:
I was wrong. I knew I was wrong, and yet I persisted. If that is possible of any explanation it is this: From the day I left my father my lines had been cast, or I cast them myself, among crooked people. I had not spent one hour in the company of an honest person. I had lived in an atmosphere of larceny, theft, crime. I thought in terms of theft. Houses were built to be burglarized, citizens were to be robbed, police to be avoided and hated, stool pigeons to be chastised, and thieves to be cultivated and protected. That was my code; the code of my companions. That was the atmosphere I breathed. “If you live with wolves, you will learn to howl.”
It is almost as though he was saying once started in the wrong direction, he couldn’t manage to turn. Braly put it this way in False Starts:
My problem is I can’t get up in the morning. I want, but can’t believe I deserve. My problem is I’m a rational and good-hearted man who does irrational and harmful things. My problem is there is no one out there in the wilderness who can tell me what my problem is. My problem is my life is already half over and I haven’t allowed myself to begin living it. My problem is I’m terribly afraid I can’t solve my problem. I feel I can, though I tremble for myself, and I live in this hope, but I have felt so, hoped so before and I have been wrong. My problem is that I don’t know what to say to you to explain myself. I meant no harm. I mean no harm. Please let me go now before it is too late for me.
Tragedy unfolded in the lives of all these men, and no less so for many of their victims. It is instructive to be able to read the words these men have left behind, to understand the truths they have to tell us, not only about the characters in their novels but about themselves. These works live on precisely because they contain the grains of that thing that all of us, throughout most of our lives, strive to understand: what is it that makes us do what we do?
I no longer brood over the right or the wrong of what was done to me—it happened—and I wonder if it isn’t the effort to contain our lives in a morality so simple which leads some of us into such terrible trouble. I can’t answer my own question. At the end of his long life, Jung wrote that the individual was the only reality. If I sense this truth precisely, it says my life, as all lives are, is unique. For myself, I would change nothing because it has all led me to become the man I hoped to be.
—from False Starts, by Malcolm Braly
… my life passed as a dream that never quite came true
—from “The Road,” an unpublished poem by Malcolm Braly, 1946
Beyond his books, Braly eventually proved a very important thing to himself. Though his life may have been cut too tragically short for him to realize it in full, his writings show that all of us, even the worst of us, can learn to live with our ghosts.
[Excerpts from the Introduction to False Starts:
CITY OF CLOSED DOORS
DO YOUR OWN TIME: Malcolm Braly
by Rick Ollerman]