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False Starts

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

The relationship between the convict writer and the reader who consciously reads the work of a convict produces a subtext that distorts and sometimes overwhelms the text on the page. Whether he writes fiction or nonfiction, in a cell or in a room in the free world, the convict writer, no matter how honest he attempts to be, speaks in a made-up voice, and almost against his will, cons first himself, then the reader. Going before the Adult Authority for a parole hearing produces similar psychological manipulations. Whether sympathetic to the plight of convicts or not, the reader, approaching the author with a desire to understand mingled with plain curiosity, cannot totally trust the convict writer, knowing his need to rationalize, his natural inclination, trained by habit, to con, and the inherent tendency of rhetoric itself to slant or distort. Thus, the convict writer writes and the self-conscious reader reads out of assumptions and expectations regarding each other that render the relationship between writer and reader more complex and murky than it normally is. It is in that context that Malcolm Braly’s autobiography False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons, interests us, for though it is relatively well-written, neither the man nor his experiences are extraordinary enough in themselves to warrant a book. What the reader experiences, then, is the interplay between Braly’s assumptions about himself and the reader’s assumptions about Braly.

Just as the parole board is suspicious of Pauline conversions, one may regard the prison-born writer skeptically; becoming a writer in prison is almost as practical a form of self-expression as becoming a jailhouse lawyer. But Braly began writing, and painting, in high school several years before his first incarceration; in prison, he cultivated what was already growing. But for many years his motivations to create were inextricably tangled up with his painful feelings of rejection and self-revulsion; if he was unworthy of love for his own sake, people could love him for his art—and his fame and fortune. In prison, he fantasized, and out of prison, he pursued the shabbiest dreams of clothes, cars, yachts, islands, girls, bright lights, and good times that he picked up from straight society through its advertisements, magazines, movies, and other mass media. Just as he could experience no life in himself but only grotesque projections of society’s hollowest media images, he could not write or paint for the sheer love of it. Once the crime-and-prison subject matter of his fiction, and a moderate grasp of the craft, gained him acceptance, he discovered that “excellence,” not acceptance, was what he wanted to achieve all along. That recognition sounds like an unconscious fabrication to appease the straight reader’s demand for meaning in an account of a rather meaningless life.

In Braly’s first paragraph, the perceptive reader will hear the first note of the subtext sounded. The voice, the tone, the style of the convict-as-writer and his attitude toward his material and toward the reader is implicit:This is an account of how I blundered in and out of prison for over twenty years—far more in than out—and how these experiences changed me. I invite you to realize this adventure with me, to see it in the form of a journey, a long and often difficult voyage—through the life of our times, which, finally, finds the grace of safe harbor.

That paragraph embodies a life of deceptive dreaming, thinking, writing, and talking—consciously and unconsciously, a self-deceptive liver of “the Life” deceiving the outsider, ten years after leaving San Quentin a free man.

The arrogance and smugness of a man who thinks of himself as the man who was there, who really knows what it was like, the inside-dopester, suffuses every passage in his book. To write as he does, Braly seems to forget that he has had predecessors, that the reader has had access, even in his sheltered life, to the...

(The entire section is 2,024 words.)