When I left prison, back in early May of this year, I never looked back. Literally, not turning around to give that misbegotten hellhole one more second of my attention, and figuratively, casting the memories from my consciousness and striving to make the very concept an unrelatable abstraction with which I am passing familiar but utterly disinterested. I do not want to think about prison, nor discuss it or hobnob with ex-cons; don’t care to read about it or watch films set there. I shucked off that grimy cloak and left it on the Mojave floor, there to burn in the infernal southern sun.
Then again, when the Editor politely suggests I read and report on a reminiscence written by a notorious bank robber, I do it, because I’m not going to wind up another of those disobedient writers out there fertilizing grapevines.
The problem with prison memoirs is that they are usually written either by clueless dilettantes vacationing from the straight world for a year or two after some youthful indiscretion or botched financial enterprise, such as Orange Is The New Black, or by actual cons with the writing skills of chimps who exaggerate and glorify their experiences. Both are a waste of time, from my perspective; having lived the life, I don’t need to read about some dingbat preppy who, having had the scales shorn from his eyes by 18 months in a federal puppy farm, discovers that convicts are, in fact, people too. In addition, I long ago lost any tolerance I may once have had for bad writing, and it doesn’t get much worse than some thug with literary aspirations armed with a thesaurus, with which he can do more damage to the mother tongue than he ever did to society with his gat.
My own prison experience was hardly worth writing about, except in the sort of offhand satirical manner I did employ in my weekly postings here in these pages during my stint, because the overriding theme of imprisonment, for me, was Boredom. Capital B to accentuate and elevate the concept, because if you think you have ever known boredom and tedium, think again. Your little traffic snarls and DMV lines are carnival rides compared to my years of twiddling my thumbs and staring at the ceiling. Yes, there were a few harrowing moments, but certainly no more than I experienced in my life outside with the degenerate psychos I kept company with and the sketchy environs I inhabited, and rare enough not to have had to worry about them. I suppose I was lucky, and rather than suffering from post-traumatic stress or becoming some kind of soulless sociopathic monster, I tend to look back on those years as I would as tenure in a particularly stultifying job, like hand-sorting lug nuts or something, and would no more care to write a memoir about it than one about my time spent on hold over the telephone throughout the years.
Dannie Martin’s prison experience, as chronicled in the memoir Incorrigible, was a different species of animal altogether. A con of the old school, Red Hog, as he became known after a youthful chow-hall dispute over a pork chop, came up in the 1950s when prison was prison and convicts were convicts.
A wild kid from the start, he started boosting cars at the age of thirteen and began his prison career shortly after, in the California Youth Authority, for a series of school burglaries targeting picture-day revenue. Firmly entrenched in a life of crime and a chronic opiate addiction, he robbed, burgled, stole, and scammed his way through life, navigating the legal and prison systems with the aplomb of an obviously intelligent, adaptable, and resourceful man, nevertheless rarely giving much time or thought to the notion of going straight. After years of bouncing in and out of the California prison system, he figured he “may as well be hung for a goat than a lamb” and took to robbing banks, enmeshing himself in the federal system for years serving sentences and parole violations until his eventual, and final, release in 2006.
It was in the custody of the Feds that he began his writing career, publishing a number of articles and exposés for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Punch section, acquiring a lifelong friend and mentor in editor Peter Sussman, with whom he would later collaborate on Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog, a collection of his work for the Chronicle. He also wrote two novels, The Dishwasher and In The Hat.
Martin is no literary stylist, but writes clearly and concisely in bluntly utilitarian fashion, relating episodes both humorous and horrifying without apparent embellishment or braggadocio. He tells his story matter-of-factly with neither apology nor self-recrimination, spinning the tale of a bold, adventurous junkie thief a little smarter than the average con but not smart enough to stay out of prison. He makes clear the fact that his prime motivator is not money per se but its utility as a means to stay high without the tedious responsibilities of the straight life.
When you read Incorrigible, you like Dannie Martin, whatever your feelings about crime and criminals. You understand how we was able to survive multiple years in some of America’s toughest prisons and emerge physically unscathed, developing friendships with people of all races and inclinations. You get why he can freely banter with judges and cops in his meanderings through the system. You see why a bondsman would do interstate travel to free him on his signature, because he was a charming, intelligent, talented man with an unshakeable old-school con’s sense of honor and principle.
Incorrigible is a thoughtful, captivating, and honest memoir, interspersed with a few examples of strangely moving prison poetry; Martin’s story is a valuable and meaningful chronicle of a misspent life given significance through his writing. As much an historical document as a memoir, there is plenty here to appreciate by people on both sides of the legal fence.