Braly's 1967 prison novel, On the Yard, is an underappreciated American masterpiece.
Malcolm Braly (1925–1980) was born in Portland, Oregon. Abandoned by his parents, Braly lived between foster homes and institutions for delinquent children, and by the time he was forty had spent nearly seventeen years in prison for burglary, serving time at Nevada State Prison, San Quentin, and Folsom State Prison. He wrote three novels behind bars, Felony Tank (1961), Shake Him Till He Rattles (1963), and It's Cold Out There (1966), and upon his release in 1965 began to work on On the Yard. When prison authorities learned of the book they threatened to revoke his parole, and he was forced to complete it in secret. Published in 1967, after Braly's parole had expired, On the Yard received wide acclaim. It was followed by his autobiography, False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons (1976), and a final work of fiction, The Protector (1979). Malcolm Braly enjoyed fifteen years of freedom before his death in a car accident at age fifty-four.
—from the 2002 New York Review of Books Classics edition of On The Yard by Malcolm Braly, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem.
It's always struck me as strange that in all the nostalgia and excitement over the old Gold Medals, the best serious novelist of them all is rarely mentioned.
We have editor/sage Knox Burger to thank for the far too brief literary career of Malcolm Braly. Burger visited San Quentin when he was editor of Gold Medal in the early '60s and encouraged Braly to write.
Truman Capote, hot again after In Cold Blood, pronounced Braly’s On the Yard one of the best prison novels ever written. Some reviewers compared it favorably with Dostoevsky. It is an important American novel—a masterpiece—that has been allowed to languish. It is now back in print thanks to New York Review of Books Classics, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem.
The Gold Medals include Felony Tank, Shake Him Till He Rattles, and It's Cold out There. All three are fine pieces of craft, alternately heartbreaking and terrifying. In Tank, a young man experiences jail life for the first time.
Shake Him Till He Rattles is the best novel I've ever read about the intersection of the Beats and criminals in the San Francisco heyday of Neal Cassidy, Jack Kerouac, etc. I'm pretty sure Braly read John D. MacDonald's The Price of Murder before he undertook the book—although Jonathan Craig wrote a similar book before MacDonald, Come Night, Come Evil—but Braly's is by far the better of the two. It is a very precisely written and observed novel about how rich women slummed in the Beat bars of the time and how a cop persecuted the novel's protagonist. It is grim, bleak, and one of the best novels Gold Medal ever published. Bill Crider, for one, thinks Shake Him is even better than On the Yard.
Cold Out is not as successful but it is every bit as fascinating. It’s the tale of how an ex-con who is desperately in need of money to keep his parole officer happy sells encyclopedias door to door (a miserable job I—and Don Westlake’s Dortmunder—once had), and how this leads him to get involved with a handful of strange people who live in the same apartment building. The woman, a beautiful but mentally ill innocent, who reminds me of the Marilyn Monroe character in Don't Bother to Knock, inadvertently leads him to his doom. The second act is especially wobbly but the characters (reminiscent of a Philip K. Dick crew, actually) are powerful enough to take your head off.
Braly was the patron saint of losers. I saw him on Johnny Carson one night when On the Yard was in vogue. He was a big guy with a high-pitched laugh. There was that shambling Beat sorrow to him that not even his laugh could disguise. Carson looked alternately baffled and afraid.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #87.