Born with a silver spoon, Malcolm Braly became a mouthpiece for the no-hopers and might-have-beens in America's prisons. He was inside for almost twenty years and finished On the Yard (1967) in the final few months of his stretch. It was an unlikely career for a novelist, though Braly, who took a dim view of his success, never seemed surprised, certain that his fate had been forecast from the start. His father ran a West Coast automobile agency in the 1920s, a blue-chip business that folded with the Crash. Braly was five years old; in no time he was fingered as a sneak, a show-off and a thief. False Starts (1976), Braly's remarkably moderate and candid memoir, never hymns his childhood unhappiness: his parents left, first his mother, soon after his sister was born, then his father, and Braly ended up in a Catholic boarding-school north of Seattle. Together with a cluster of friends, he began to steal. The boys collected milk and soda bottles from the dump to turn in for deposits, but when the supply of empties dried up, they nicked bottles from neighbourhood garages, then progressed to back porches and finally made it into a kitchen, taking milk from the icebox and tipping it down the sink. 'At a certain age most boys steal,' Braly admits: 'most also stop. I didn't.'
LRB 23 May 2002 | PDF Download