Book Review: Albert Race Sample Relives Texas Prison Life in Racehoss

Surviving 17 years on a prison farm

Albert Race Sample Relives Texas Prison Life in <i>Racehoss</i>

Albert Race Sample Relives Texas Prison Life in <i>Racehoss</i>

Maybe it's the murderous heat that bumps off our better angels, but something about summer brings out the outlaw in the Chronicle crew. So we have decided July is Crime Month, and given our writers and editors license to celebrate the unlawful. For more reviews of crime fiction; author interviews; plugs for crime-related shows, screenings, podcasts, and events; and appreciations of classic crime sagas, go to

A great story satisfies the mind and soul in ways that few things can. Albert Sample's 1984 memoir Racehoss, newly reissued with additional material, is one long perspective-altering trip through his life growing up in 1930s Texas as the biracial son of Emma Barnes, a black gambler and prostitute, to his years in the Army and hoboing around the U.S. to his 17-year stint as an inmate on a Texas prison farm. Emma was a shrewd businesswoman and an angry drunk who ran a craps table and turned tricks at home while young Albert worked as lookout and managed her whiskey bootlegging hustle. His recollections of youth revolve around her brutal abuse and the gifts of street sense she gave him. Had she not knocked his teeth loose and called him "peckerwood," he may have never ascended to the coveted post of top-ranking con among the inmates at the Retrieve Plantation. Nevertheless, he paints their story as one of their struggles together and the bond between a mother and her son.

Sample is generous with the floor time he gives others, and I found myself longing for more insight into who he was during those trying times. Aside from the physical pain he endured and one particularly dark stretch in the "pisser" (solitary confinement), Sample tends to keep his emotions in check, never divulging more than necessary to keep the reader with him.

His masterful descriptions of the gamblers and hustlers around his mother's craps table, and the cons and "bosses" he knew during his time at Retrieve – "Burnin' Hell," as it was known – make it nearly impossible to put the book down. As Sample matures on the cotton fields of the prison farm, so too does his prose. The vernacular takes some getting used to, but once grasped, the soul and deliciously raunchy humor in his dialogue is totally addictive.

"Forty was cussing under his breath as he sullenly walked down the aisle. 'Gotdam muthafucka wants me ta go git a nigguh's dick. Shit, I sho be glad when I git the fuck outta dis muthafucka.' He went to the back where the mops and brooms were kept. He got a broom and began sweeping the severed sex organ up the alley. More than once it rolled underneath a bunk, and he had to get down on his knees to reach it with the broom. He was having hell keeping Bull's lollipop rolling in the right direction.

"After a lengthy ordeal, he rolled Bull's gritty prick up to the bars. While the healers bent down to scrutinize the seven- or eight-inch piece of meat, Forty leaned on his broom and looked off into the distance, totally unconcerned."

Racehoss: Big Emma’s Boy

by Albert Race Sample
Scribner, 416 pp., $30

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Albert Race Sample, Retrieve Plantation, Crime Month 2018

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