An MBA Ex-Con's Memoir
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 Coming (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.
That's 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.
Hoarding 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.
Paroled 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.
"That 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.
"I 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?
"I was too!" he jokes, cutting me off. "Well, maybe not totally."
"You did some drugs," I say, "you did a lot of drinking?"
"But 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?
"No, 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.
"Hey, 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?
"I 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?
"Not 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."'"
Lerner's 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 Press 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.
We've 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!" ([www.99beersoffthewall.com](http://www.99beersoffthewall.com))
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