When veteran burglar and dope fiend Jack Black published his autobiography, You Can’t Win , in 1926, he made the biggest score of his life. An America afflicted with—but fascinated by—Prohibition-spawned criminal violence made a best-seller of this true-crime tale set in the hobo jungles, “wine dives,” and prisons of the West.
Black had gone straight by the time he wrote the book, and was a major voice for prison reform. But his heart-pounding accounts of sneak-thievery, his vivid portraits of hard-boiled but honorable “yeggs” (crooks) like the Sanctimonious Kid and Salt Chunk Mary, and his adventures on and off “hop” (opium) helped give one reader, an upper-middle-class kid named William Burroughs, a yen for living and writing the outlaw life. Black’s career “sounded good to me,” wrote Burroughs, “compared with the dullness of a Midwest suburb where all contact with life was shut out.”
Bruno Ruhland agrees. The 47-year-old Berkeley bookstore clerk has made it his mission to rescue stories like Black’s from publishing limbo. When he saw that a 1988 reprint of You Can’t Win by Amok Press had gone out of print, he approached AK Press—an anarchist collective with offices in Britain and San Francisco and a long list of left-wing and “outsider” titles to its credit—with an idea for a co-publishing venture: Nabat Books. Nabat, named for a Ukrainian anarchist association persecuted by the Bolsheviks, would tap what Ruhland calls “a mighty underground river of testimony from the disaffected.” Jack Black’s voice would be the first to be heard.
The Nabat/AK Press matchup is a natural. Another AK co-publishing venture, Elephant Editions, is the brainchild of Jean Weir and Alfredo Bonanno, a Sicilian anarchist who supports his projects with jewel heists and spends much of his time in prison. Ruhland isn’t ready to go that far, but he has big plans for future Nabat reprints: Boxcar Bertha , the tale of a female hobo; a first-person account of a Warsaw Ghetto fighter; and the autobiography of a German communist who did time in San Quentin. Downbeat books? Ruhland says no. “The losers of history don’t deserve to be forgotten,” he says. “They’re more interesting than the big capitalist heroes. And their stories preserve little kernels of hope.”