An MBA Ex-Con’s Memoir

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Jimmy A.
Lerner doesn’t conform to anyone’s idea of the ex-con. At 50, he seems
more like what he was before he went to prison: your average Jewish guy from
Flatbush, funny and wisecracking but otherwise harmless, with a wife and two
kids and a house in the Bay Area suburbs, just another MBA holding down an anonymous
middle-management job at the phone company.

But Lerner
is an ex-con. And not a "white-collar criminal," either. He’s
only been out of the Nevada state prison system for seven weeks, after three
years behind bars on a manslaughter charge. He killed a man in a Las Vegas hotel.
Snapped the guy’s neck with his own cowboy belt. He says it was self-defense.
Don’t they always.

How Lerner
came to that moment is half the story of his new, first book, You Got Nothing
(Broadway Books, 387 pages, $24.95). The other half is his highly
detailed memoir of life behind bars. It’s an absorbing, by turns funny
and horrifying tale.

As he reports
it, Lerner was 47 and struggling a bit–having trouble with his drinking
and drugs, recently separated from his wife and about to be downsized out of
his marketing position because of a phone company merger–when he met Dwayne
Hasselman (as he calls him in the book) at an AA meeting. Dwayne was one of
those really scary losers–bad coke habit with the accompanying fits of
violent rage and a closetful of weapons; pathological liar; porn-devouring loner;
one step ahead of the repo man–who latch onto unwilling "friends"
and proceed to make their lives hell. Lerner found he couldn’t shake the
guy, but admits to some stupid moves, like inviting Dwayne to join him in a
comped hotel suite in Vegas for a couple nights of r&r. The trip turned
into a crazed nightmare, culminating with Dwayne attacking Lerner with a knife
and the cowboy belt, which Lerner managed to turn against him. Then he sat down
and made two calls: one to his AA sponsor, and one to 911.

Lerner’s version. There were no witnesses, and Dwayne ain’t here to
tell his side. Lerner copped a plea and drew two-to-12. And found himself, at
47, a "prison fish" (new guy) in the Nevada state system. The rest
of the book is built on his day-to-day notes on life inside. He had it, relatively
speaking, easy. As an older guy (his nickname was O.G.) he was in little fear
of becoming some guy’s bitch. Because he could read and write, his skills
were in demand. And by buddying up with a big neo-Nazi he calls Kansas, he earned
powerful protectors in the prison’s racially segregated gang world.

paper and pencils, Lerner wrote his manuscript longhand. It’s not one of
those redeeming Shawshank tales. It’s a little more, as Broadway’s
press release quips, like Dilbert Goes to Prison: a white-collar look
into a mostly blue-collar hell, told with gritty humor. (Curious factoid: Scott
Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, was in the phone company cubicle next
to Lerner’s before they both went off to more spectacular careers.) There
are big events, like gang wars in the yard and new young inmates victimized
by serial sodomization, but they feel almost expected–we’ve heard
those before. More interesting are the small details, like odd tattoos (e.g.,
NLR, for Nazi Low Riders) and the intricacies of convict jargon, or instructions
on jury-rigging a cigarette lighter by jamming a paper clip into an electrical
outlet. Lerner offers little of the bathos or salvation themes these books usually
traffic in. There’s not a lot of sentiment, and no uplifting climax. Prison
sucked, and he’s glad to be out. Period.

Last spring,
Lerner sent queries out, and landed a New York agent, Brian DeFiore, who sold
the book to Broadway, earning Lerner a reported $100,000 advance. The movie
has since been optioned. Lerner, you might say, made a killing.

in January, he’d been a free man in Reno, NV, for all of six weeks when
we spoke by phone last week. He says Reno’s "not the ideal, but you
don’t get much choice," since as a parolee he has to stay inside Nevada.
He found an apartment in downtown Reno, which he says is much to be preferred
over the halfway house the state would’ve put him in had he needed it.
He has to get permission from his parole officer to leave the state (for instance,
to come to New York next week to be interviewed by Bryant Gumbel). He mimics
a call to his p.o. "It’s like, ‘Hey, um, do you think it’d
be okay if I–’ ‘WHADDYA WANT?’ …And they issue you a ‘travel
pass.’ It reminds me of the old hallway monitor pass I’d get in school
in Brooklyn. Now I have a travel pass. I feel pretty empowered now."

Asked what
was the first thing he bought on his release, he tells me it was a computer,
so he can continue to pursue his writing. I tell him I’d have thought it
would have been a huge meal after three years of prison slop.

was sort of on my mind," he replies. "I dreamt many times of one of
those all-you-can-eat buffets, roast beef and shrimp. I’ve already indulged
in that a few times."

I ask him
if Nevada has any Son of Sam laws that might prevent him from making money on
his story. He says Broadway’s lawyers saw no problem, "for the reason,
I guess, that Son of Sam was intended to keep people from profiting from their
crimes. My book is a prison memoir, not about a crime, so the issue never seemed
to come up." Also, besides possibly a sister, "Dwayne" seems
to have no family or survivors to raise a complaint.

I ask why
he used pseudonyms in the book.

changed names to protect the guilty throughout the book," he tells me.
"When I did the first draft I used the real names, because it was just
easier for me to keep them straight. Then I went back and changed names and
some physical descriptions. But I didn’t really change as much as I should’ve.
It occurs to me now that I’m not really gonna fool a lot of people by taking
one Nazi’s tattoo and putting it on another Nazi."

Asked if
he misses any of the guys in the book, he cracks wise. "No. No. How can
I say this more emphatically? NO! Are you crazy? Put it this way, I’d
be curious to know what happens to a few people, but not to the extent that
I’d ever want to initiate contact or give them my e-mail address or anything.
‘Why don’t you come over Sunday, we’ll kick it, talk about the
good old days in prison.’ No, I don’t think so. I’d rather cut
my throat than see those people again."

Then again,
he’s not terribly worried that any of them will read it. "First of
all, they can’t get books in prison. They’re contraband. And secondly,
who’s gonna read it to them? I’m no longer there. Now, maybe if it
was a pop-up book or something…"

I tell Lerner
how he doesn’t strike me as much of a felon. He seems more the MBA he used
to be, maybe not totally on the straight and narrow–

was too!" he jokes, cutting me off. "Well, maybe not totally."

did some drugs," I say, "you did a lot of drinking–"

that was a requirement of my generation," he shoots back. "My g-g-generation."

So does
he feel like a changed man as an ex-felon?

not at all," he says. "I feel exactly like the same asshole I was
before I went to prison. It didn’t change me at all. I didn’t get
institutionalized. By the time I went in there I was 47. I already had some
life experience. I had my values set. I’ll see youngsters go in there,
18, 19, and get all changed. They believe what they hear. They think these guys
are role models in prison. I didn’t go through any of that."

And his
probability of recidivism is not high–unless he runs into another madman
in AA.

I’d hate to have to do this every couple of years. Unless I write the sequel
and I need the free time."

Every murderer
says it was self-defense. Why should we believe Lerner’s story?

agree that when I was in prison I met lots of murderers, and they were all innocent,
of course. They would endlessly tell me how they were innocent and victims of
the system. And they’d make me sick. So I made a conscious effort
in this book never to say I’m an innocent victim. I did a plea bargain.
I was offered manslaughter, and I said yes, that makes sense. That’s fair.
And they said two-to-12 years and I said yes, that’s fair, that’s
appropriate for my crime. I never said I was innocent or unjustly accused. I
accepted it, did the time, and I’m not going around saying poor me."

Did he learn
any good lessons? Was there any positive effect from being in prison?

in the daily routine, which just wears you down and crushes you," he replies.
"But what I took out of it–and this is gonna sound real corny–is
just this tremendous sense of gratitude for the little things of being free.
Like taking a walk without a guy in a gun tower pointing a rifle down at you.
Being able to go out to get something to eat late at night. Going on a date
with a woman–as opposed to a guy dressed up as a woman. Though I respect
everybody’s preferences, for the record." He recalls an old con advising
him right before he left, "‘Now Jimmy, when you get out there, if
you’re lucky enough ever to have sex with a woman, at the end of it don’t
turn around and say, "Thanks, bro."’"

already working on a second book, "sort of about an ex-con adjusting to
life after prison," as well as "a book of poems entitled It’s
All Part of the Punishment
." He pauses, and chuckles. "Guess what
that’s about?"


New York
contributor Neal Pollack recently earned a pan from Greil Marcus for
his CD The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature (Bloodshot Records),
so you know he’s doing something right. You’ve read Pollack here and
in McSweeney’s, so you’d recognize the material; here he reads
selections backed by an all-star downhomey band that includes Jon Langford,
Kelly Hogan and Sally Timms, playing as the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Screw Old
Man Marcus; it’s a fun record. Maybe Pollack’s evocations of a pompous
blowhole struck a little too close to home.

all had weeks when we’ve stepped into a few more bars than we should have.
Fishwrap’s Marty Wombacher has gone us all a few sixpacks more:
he visited 99 bars in seven days and has written up the experience in 99
Beers Off the Wall
(published, not surprisingly, by 99 Beers, LLC, 174 pages,
$9.95). A drinker’s guide to Manhattan is hardly a new idea, but you don’t
see many with comments like Wombacher’s reaction to the midtown Lundy Bros.:
"Jesus, could it be any brighter in here? You need sunglasses just to drink
in this fucking joint. And if it was any more sterile, patrons wouldn’t
be able to have children for years after entering this boring-ass place. Fucking
tourist trap!" (