Life inside prisons makes for interesting stories. I wouldn’t know where to begin in reeling off some of the more compelling books, movies, and TV shows that have explored this world. But having just read Malcolm Braly’s 1961 prison novel Felony Tank, I can add it to my personal list of favorite jail tales. It also gets a high place on my score-sheet of top-notch noir literature.
Braly, who spent much time behind bars over his 54 years of life, penned another prison novel which is more celebrated than Felony Tank. 1967’s On the Yard was made into a film in ’79, got the New York Review Books Classics reissue treatment in 2002, and just generally gets lots of props. I read On the Yard just recently, right after plowing through Felony Tank. But I chose to cover Felony Tank for this series because, for one, it is more lost than On the Yard. Also, for me personally, it was the more engrossing read between the two (more on that comparison in a few). In addition to authoring these prison novels, Braly produced the 1963 cult classic novel Shake Him Till He Rattles, which explores the underbelly of San Francisco’s North Beach beatnik scene.
Much of what drew me into Felony Tank more than happened with On the Yard did is that, while the latter struck me as a sprawling study of a whole swath of people involved in prison life, Felony Tank mostly zeroes in on just a few such persons. That intense concentration on a couple inmates made me feel more inside of the prison world. Several characters come under Braly’s informed microscope in the book, but really it’s two of them who are the prime specimens. One, and the guy you’d have to say is the ultimate protagonist, is a boy named Doug. Doug is a 17-year old dropout and runaway who is a tumbleweed tumbling in the direction of trouble. He has a complex about his age — hates being thought of as a kid. His stubborn pride on this matter causes him, when he’s busted at the beginning of the novel for breaking into a feed store in a town into which he drifts, to tell the arresting cops he is 18. He is welcoming them to process him as an adult, and they are all too happy to oblige. They put him in a cell with other adult cons, where all of them await hearings that will dictate their more long-term punishments.
[How's being an adult now, Doug?]