Monday, January 24, 2011

Malcolm Braly, "On The Yard" (1967).

c. David Grim (taken 7/14/08)

It's remarkable just how contemporary prison slang from the late-60's actually sounds. I just finished reading Malcom Braly's "On the Yard" (1967), and the experience really reinforced my sense that criminals precede hipsters in identifying the smoothest and coolest idioms and mannerisms. I guess it shouldn't come as any surprise. The demimonde was formed and presided over by criminals, first and foremost. The Beat Generation only presented one more group of social malcontents inspired by the truest ne'er-do-wells. They are merely cogs in the chain of wannabes parroting those who flout convention with actions rather than words.

Reading Braly's book can be a bit puzzling, given the fact that there are so many words used in unfamiliar ways that can only be sussed out by considering the context surrounding them. of course that's half the fun with a book like "On the Yard". What terms you do recognize serve to flatter your own vanity, with your pretensions of being "with it". Naturally I'm speaking from experience. Part of the reason I'm willing to subject myself to the nastiness of prison novels and nonfiction accounts is for the feeling of being in on something that others have no clue about.

The truth is that I have no idea whether what I've read is indeed an accurate representation of what being incarcerated is like. Certainly I can surmise that the reality is often a whole hell of a lot more boring than it's depicted in the texts. After all, it seems like prison life consists of long stretches of mundane routine punctuated by short bursts of intense violence. It's kind of like war when you think about it in those terms. That doesn't take away anything from the intense pangs of dread that must be inescapable in an environment characterized by just barely repressed tensions and brooding menace.

Regardless, it's pretty obvious why Braly's story is considered a classic by those in the know. The author spent decades locked up in correctional institutions. When he describes the tone of the yard where the general population whiles away the days, or when he spells out the unspoken rules of prison politics, the details he includes suggest that he has spent much time finding just the right way to convey what it must be like to be a convict. And along the way we learn about the relationships between inmates, guards, and the institutional administrators. It's a mother lode of information.

"On the Yard" has been called the "Great American Prison Novel", and I can understand why. Braly builds this insular world brick-by-brick without treating the reader like a student in a literature class. If you read his book, you are more likely to feel like a "fish"- a first-timer who has to learn the rules by the careful observation of those who have formed and inherited them for years. Even though populated by law-breakers, prison contains an inherent logic that, while maybe not obvious, can be fatal if ignored or misapprehended. And the first requirement for survival is learning the language.

1 comment:

  1. I knew Malcolm when I was 16. He was 32 and I was charmed by his many accomplishments, not the least of which was the fact that he was my first True Love. We left San Francisco on stolen money that bought us a shopping spree on Maiden Lane and "Elmer", a 56 chevvy that was supposed to take us all the way to New York City but died in Coolidge, AZ after being dunked in a drainage ditch while Mal was searching for a good place to paint the mountains and got distracted. We took a train back to Santa Barbara, where I was cast as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, at the Santa Barber Playhouse. I took sick and was hospitalized. While in hospital, Malcolm, being low on funds, burgled a place and left his wallet at the scene. Police collected me from hospital, put me in Juvenile Detention and Malcolm was sent to San Quentin for parole violation.