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.
Here, before I go any deeper into the story, let me allow Braly’s omniscient narrator to get you better acquainted with Doug:
Even before he started running away, Doug’s life had been an endless series of moves, always moving to new places, and then in a few months moving on. His father was a heavy-construction worker, and he followed the jobs . . . The earliest memories were tied up with the smell and feeling of furnished rooms, and the uncertainty of strange neighborhoods where he stood around in the city streets or the dirt lanes formed by tarpaper construction shacks, hoping the other kids would invite him to play their games. He never developed any special skills with which to win friendship or recognition . . . His memories of school were hopelessly linked with the agony of standing before a classroom of judging strangers, while the teacher introduced him and found him a seat. That and the humiliation of handing his father a report card full of Ds and Cs. “Hell, kid, can’t you do any better than that? Do you want to end up a construction worker like me?”
So, at the onset of the tale, Doug arrives in the town of Ardilla (the state is unclear to me; the narrator describes the place as a “drab Southwestern city”), having last been stumbling around Phoenix. He’s in Ardilla for about the length of an eye blink before he spots the feed store and decides it looks like a soft touch for him to break into and get some loot he can use for food and such necessities. He gets nabbed, tossed in what the local authorities sarcastically call “the penthouse,” and all of this sets our tale in motion. And much of what propels that story is the collection of men Doug becomes cellmates with, and these guys’ plans, and their interactions with one another. So happens Doug’s new roomies are planning to break out of the felony tank, soon-like. They are in cahoots with a trusty (who’s not so trustworthy) who is going to provide them with some hacksaw blades in exchange for six cartons of cigarettes. They will use the blades to break free of the bars, the trusty gets a nice stash of smokes. You get the idea.
Among the others in the cell with Doug is a guy who goes by the name Agnes. He is the second of the two primary characters I mentioned before. And, while Doug is ultimately the most central figure in the tale, Agnes is the more memorable one. Braly put a lot into developing the personality of Agnes, who is a tough but charismatic guy whom other guys tend to want to win the favor of, and who is in charge of orchestrating the jailbreak effort. Here’s Braly’s narrator on Agnes:
His name wasn’t Agnes. Agnes was a jail nickname he’d picked up. Not because of any suggestion of effeminacy, but probably because of his complete maleness and the grinning sense of fun with which he had first accepted the joke name.
He was 22, but he looked a few years older, because he’d been raised in the open, squinting against the sun in the summer fields. It was part of his bringing up that he could run and shoot and Indian wrestle. He was short, but not so short as to be sensitive about it, and his face was lean and handsome in a raw Western style. His hair was full, long and still sun-streaked, and his skin was still tan. His wide chest rose in a definite capital V from his narrow waist, and over his right nipple he had a tattooed “Beer” and over his left, “Wine.”
The relationship that Doug forms with Agnes, as it develops by way of how they each relate to the other men in the cell, as well as to each other, is a lot of the meat of the story behind Felony Tank. Braly’s writing on how these troubled men interact with each other is piercing, and moving. Something else that Braly effectively depicts in the book is just the life inside the prison in general. As with On the Yard, the reader comes away feeling like he or she can understand an inmate’s experience. He does that with passages like this:
Doug finished his oatmeal and wiped the bowl with his bread. He was still hungry, but he was used to that. He tried the coffee. It was black, bitter without being strong. The cup was some kind of grayish soft metal, hotter than the coffee inside it.
He drank the coffee and listened to the noise of the tank: the wordless simmer of conversations, and running water. Somewhere someone was singing softly in Spanish, and someone else was swearing with a countrified exuberance. The air seemed dense, heavy with a complex of smells, all unpleasant: disinfectant, sweat, souring clothes and urine.
All that I’ve described about Felony Tank occurs over roughly the first half of the book. I don’t want to give away any details about the second half – which involves the escape attempt, and its aftermath — for fear of spoiling things for interested readers. But I will say that the back end of the novel is, like the front end, a suspenseful, gritty, highly engaging tale. It’s a masterfully written novel, and one that should wow anyone who loves a good prison tale, an ace work of noir fiction, or both.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.