45. Jack Black – You Can’t Win (1926)

Burroughs credits Jack Black’s book with introducing him to the world of crime, drugs, and wandering that in many ways sums up his whole life, and more than anything typifies his existence during the Beatnik 1940s.

It introduced Burroughs to opium – “I’d heard it brought pleasant dreams” – and gave him the understanding that only someone who actually wanted to be cured could ever hope to break the cycle of addiction: “You can lock men in prisons and deprive them of hop but they will come right back and get it again because they don’t want to be cured,” as Black puts it.

Characters from the book – Salt Chunk Mary, the Johnson family – recur throughout Burroughs’ own work, as does the crooked code of criminal morality that frames Black’s narrative: “The thief who goes out and steals room rent to pay back his poor landlady has character,” for example, while “the one who runs away without paying her has no character.”

Black’s closest associate, The Sanctimonious Kid, is possibly a model for the Subliminal Kid; Burroughs’ stage name for his lover Ian Somerville. The big Swede is another Black character who sometimes appears in Burroughs, filtered through other big Swedes who feature in Conrad and the poet Edward Arlington Robinson.

What is less commented on, however, are Burroughs’ indirect lifts. These are, for my project at least, even more interesting than the direct lifts. The anxiety of influence seems to discourage Burroughs from admitting to these ones, while the direct references he will happily admit to.

One of these is Black’s obsession with the death of Jesse James. Burroughs must have hunted out a book on the subject after reading Black, as his reported last words – Quien Sabe – recur throughout Burroughs. These also have an echo of Black, for, faced with a gang of Chinese that he was trying to rob, he cries out repeatedly “no sabe! No sabe!”

The association of the Chinese with opium is a longstanding one in exotic literature, but the melding of Chinese opium dens with underworld life is made simple and elegant in Black in the same way it would late be in Junky. The line “No Glot. Clom fliday,” however, is pure Burroughs. Got first hand.

Kit Carson is another cowboy Burroughs must have learned about from Black, and later appears (crossed with Denton Welch) as Kim Carsons.

The idea of going out to Texas and working on a ranch/farm to get clean is also mimicked by Burroughs in his late 1940s attempt at farming. Black’s happy ever after doesn’t quite come true for Burroughs, however.

Finally, three inspirations I’ve never seen tied to Black but, for me, couldn’t be clearer in their derivation… (it’s things like this that make me wonder if other researchers have ever read these books, or just say they have!)

Early in the book, a hobo makes use of “an eyedropper with a hypodermic needle soldered to it with sealing wax”. This is such an unusual technique for shooting up that there was a whole discussion board on the Burroughs and Associates facebook group discussing whether it’s even possible to do. I suspect Burroughs may have never actually done this himself, and simply lifted it from Black and put it straight into Junky and Naked Lunch.

Another one is Burroughs’ technique for “invisibility”. If you see everyone on the street before they see you, Burroughs says, you’ll remain invisible to them. He go this trick, he says, from an old mafia don. No he didn’t, I reply, he got it from the final pages of You Can’t Win.

Black describes the technique quite clearly, then shows it in action: “none of them ever saw me, because I saw them first”.

Finally, the opening scene (or one of the opening scenes) from Naked Lunch in which, having just shot up, the sailor’s face dissolves as a little boy watches on… this scene was one of the first pieces of writing to really shock, appal, and hypnotise me as a teenage reader. It’s seared into my mind.

Well, how does You Can’t Win begin? Not exactly the same way, but similar enough. The old Black, having described his time-worn face and cracked physiognomy, stares into a mirror. As he looks at his face, “the old one seems to dissolve and in its place I see the face of a schoolboy.”

This, for Black, is an elegant transition from present day Black to Black the child. It’s a good start to the story. Burroughs’ scene is so similar (and is also the start to a story) that I can’t believe it to have come from anywhere else but here.

As is typical of Burroughs, a line that Black meant impressionistically was interpreted by him literally. Thus, when he comes to write it himself, the face literally melts away in a “haze of static”.

In short then, I knew that Black’s You Can’t Win was going to be a big influence on Burroughs, but what I wasn’t prepared for was just how much of an influence it clearly is. Just as Bloom describes poets being “possessed” by their forebears, it seems clear to me that Burroughs was possessed by this book. Consciously or unconsciously, he can’t help but mimic it.