The Absurd Life of the Criminal

American Classics Existential Fiction French Transgressive

I recently read You Can’t Win, the autobiography of Jack Black. This book was a best seller in 1926, and was a favorite of William S. Burroughs. As I read it, I could see how Burroughs’ first novel, Junky, was influenced by Black’s history. But what came to mind more often were recollections of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

In The Stranger, we follow the events in the life of Meursault, Meursault is a pied-noir: a Frenchman born and raised in colonial Algeria. The title of this book in French is L’Etranger, and the primary of definition of "étranger" is "foreigner". Meursault appears as a foreigner or outsider, living life through physical sensations, but with little meaningful connection to the society around him. At his mother’s funeral he displays no emotion. He is alive only to the sensations of the sun, the sea, and casual sex with Marie, a woman who used to work in his office.

Meursault thus drifts along through life, reacting rather than acting. Through a seemingly meaningless series of events he finds himself on a beach, in the blazing sun, confronting an Arab that had had an altercation with Meursault’s friend Raymond. Meursault has Raymond’s gun in his pocket, and when the Arab draws a knife in the blinding sun, the light glinting off the blade “like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead”, Meursault pulls the gun and shoots. He then fires four more shots into the body.

Jack Black’s life in You Can’t Win is very much like that of Meursault. He is raised by an emotionally distant father, his mother having died when he was quite young. His only desire is to go west and have adventures similar to those that he has read about in dime novels. The events take place in the early 1900s, so the West of legend has not completely vanished into history. Black falls in first with hobos and then with thieves and other members of the “yegg brotherhood”: a loose confederation of criminals who commit burglaries and other crimes; and travel the country by hopping freight trains.

Like Meursault, Black drifts along. If he needs money, he plans a robbery and executes it. When his pockets are full, he kicks back, living in cheap boarding houses and visiting the “hop joints” – opium dens – of San Francisco and other cities. He spends much time in prison. From time to time he thinks of giving up his life of crime, but he is pulled along by the inertia of his existence.

William S. Burroughs was inspired by Black’s narrative, and in the autobiographical Junky he recounts his life as a heroin addict and petty criminal. Burroughs came from a well-to-do family and didn’t have to work, but he was attracted by the criminal underworld. Hanging around with petty thieves and drug addicts, he was introduced to junk in the 1940s, during the war. In the prologue to Junky he says “You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong convictions in any other direction. Junk wins by default. I tried it as a matter of curiosity. I drifted along taking shots when I could score. I ended up hooked.” Before he got hooked, he could take various jobs to fill the time, with no financial worries. Junk gave his life purpose. He had to score to fend off the sickness of withdrawal, and he would do anything to get money to score: rolling drunks, selling drugs. The novel recounts his exploits in New York, New Orleans, Texas and Mexico. He lives in the junk underworld and is involved in various schemes, the end of which is to score drugs. He goes through several “cures” to get off the drug, some of which nearly kill him.

The common thread in these three books is the fact that their protagonists coast along, allowing external events to determine their fate. In fact, it is their reaction to external events, to the outside world, that defines them. Meursault is not a criminal at the beginning of The Stranger. He has a conventional job. But he gets drawn into a plan of revenge on Raymond’s girlfriend, which sets in motion the events that lead him to become a murderer. Jack Black occasionally thinks of leaving crime and embarking on a “straight” life, but the temptation to make one last, big score keeps him going down the path he is on. Burroughs rebelled against his upper-middle class upbringing, and was searching for a life that negated his bourgeois values. On the way he found heroin and became an addict. After that he did what his need for the drug dictated.

Each of these individuals had free will, yet chose to commit a criminal act. They could have also chosen to live a different kind of life, or reacted differently to the events around them. Perhaps the reason they did what they did was because they did not, as Burroughs says, “have strong convictions in any other direction”. When we look at criminal behavior it is easy to see that once you have accepted the reality of committing the crime the rest of the life follows logically.

Yet isn’t all life like this? Most people do not choose to become criminals, and in fact avoid crime. But every person in one way or another drifts along just as Jack Black drifted along. Certainly there are people who map out their future, with plans to do "this" in five years, to accomplish "that" in ten. But the average person drifts. He or she gets out of college or high school, takes the first job that comes along, stays there for a few years, and then takes another job that pays more money. Now the person has a “good” job, and stays with it, riding it out, until he or she retires or gets laid off. And does what the job dictates. The criminal must steal to make his money, the junky must get heroin to avoid junk sickness, and the working stiff must toe the line to keep his or her job. In each case, the individual has chosen his lot and follows it to its logical conclusion.

Camus’ assertion is that there is no higher power that guides man along, that life itself is absurd. At the end of The Stranger, Meursault becomes enraged at the priest who is trying to get him to give up his atheism and embrace God. Meursault tells the priest that life is meaningless; that we all make our choice as to how to live, and that no choice is better than any other. After the priest leaves and Meursault calms down, he experiences peace: “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope ... I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”

At the end of You Can’t Win Jack Black has found a “straight” job. He has kicked his opium habit. He is grateful to the people who helped him out, and he intends to keep to the straight and narrow. He has given up on stealing. And yet, his life as a working man has no more great purpose than his life as a criminal:

“I quit stealing and learned to work because I was in a hole where I could not do otherwise. I was in hock to friends who saved me from a heavy sentence, provided me with work, and expected only that I stay out of jail. That’s not asking much of a man – to keep out of jail.” Now that he is out of the criminal life, the structures of his new life pull him along much as the old criminal structures did: “I have no money, no wife, no auto. I have no dog. I have neither a radio set nor a rubber plant – I have no troubles.”

Like Meursault, Jack Black has accepted the essential meaningless of life and is at peace. Burroughs, at the end of Junky, is likewise unrepentant. He has learned from hard experience that “Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.” He stills sees drugs as a way of breaking free momentarily from the meaningless of life. He has heard about yage, a South American hallucinogen that is said to increase telepathic powers, and he is going to travel to Columbia to investigate. But more than searching for a new drug, he is in search of “kick”: “Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh. Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix.”

Certainly in these extreme cases we can see what Camus calls the absurdity of life: that it has no rational or redeeming meaning, that existence is the same for each man, and it is up to each man to make of it what he will or what he can. There is no higher power guiding the individual with an unseen hand. But isn’t this true for all of us? We don’t have to take to a life of crime to realize that the choices we make are what define our lives. The question then is how do we find happiness or peace of mind? Meurseault was able to find peace by accepting his lot, Black by finding a job and staying out of jail. Burroughs at the end of Junky was still searching. How do we find meaning in life: through resignation, through acceptance of a higher power, through projects, through work? It is up to each of us to find our way.

6 Responses to "The Absurd Life of the Criminal"

by Bill_Ectric on

Another top-notch, pitch-perfect gem of an article, Michael. Three good books/authors compared & contrasted for philosophical import.

by Dan on

Great essay, Michael. Now I'll have to reread both You Can't Win and The Stranger!

What can you tell me about the photo? I love it.

by WIREMAN on

......I enjoyed the read and the pic of that cell/cage is haunting.....i've built several jail facilities and been amazed that a human can survive in such a small space......life and the reason for living, or more specifically the why?????? is also the main theme in somerset maugham's the razor's edge.....nothing really matters....

by marie louise em... on

I never made the link between Camus and Burroughs, and I've read them both with great pleasure.

I actually enjoyed comparing Camus's L'étranger with Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Though I was 18/19 at the time when I discussed this, and I can't clearly recall why.

I think I discussed more the way in which both main characters are being lead by common courtesies and etiquette. In which I found that both characters, Meursault and Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, were trying to escape from.

But I enjoyed your parallels much more then mine.

All of them are classics!

by Levi Asher on

About that photo ... that was my contribution to Mike's excellent piece. I did a google image search on "old west jail", thinking of ol' Jack Black, and found this photo of a jail cell in the middle of a field. I don't know anything else about the photo except that the page said it was from somewhere in Texas.

by Garrett on

I can't tell you how excited I am to hear someone else recommend You Can't Win. And your comparison w/the Stranger is spot on. I think one of the most interesting things about Black's autobiography are the things he left out - no sex, no violent crimes he personally committed, etc. One has to wonder how much of his story he couldn't tell for fear of prosecution.

Great photo, too. Reminds me of the scene where Jack gets himself arrested for vagrancy and thrown into the cage in the town square so he can rob the general store across the street and escape suspicion. Pure artistry.

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