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Two ex-cons' choices: Go straight or straight to hell

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The movies teach us that there are good guys and bad guys -- and then there are bad guys named Angel, as in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But two new books by former Colorado prisoners trace wildly divergent paths through the thickets of crime and punishment -- one an ever-downward spiral of dope and betrayal, the other a tale of redemption and exhortation.

The more interesting book, by far, is the downer. Vato Maldito: My Life of Crime, by John "Bubbles" Gallegos (Enlightened Pyramid Publications), is a slim, unadorned account of tough-guy Gallegos careening from the streets to prison and back again, battling addiction and treacherous stick-up partners, jailhouse snitches and his own demons.

Raised in the San Luis Valley and Denver, Gallegos started thieving in the early 1950s, at the age of twelve. He had a heroin habit before he was twenty. His memoir needs an editor, but it still has a kind of raw power that comes from an unblinking, unapologetic account of robberies and marriages gone bad, conning parole officers and hustling for scores, desperate scams and desperate people.

From various references it appears that Gallegos came from an extended family of criminals, but he had even greater conflicts with the crime "families" that adopted him. He somehow survived the attack of one ex-associate, who took an ax to his skull.

Although the account uses first names, probably to discourage libel actions, some names and incidents will be recognizable to students of local crime, such as a reference to being busted by Denver so-called supercop "Daryl C." (That's Daril Cinquanta, subject of several Westword stories.) It's an intriguing slice of Denver's underworld for future historians to consider, even though Gallegos never quite found his way out of the maze. He died in 2006, at the age of 66, about a week after his last release from prison. He was suffering from cancer and had cocaine and heroin in his system.

There couldn't be a book more different from Gallegos' terse memoir than Andrew E. Matson's hefty Choose to Do Right: A Proven Path to Criminal Rehabilitation (Outskirts Press). Like Gallegos, Matson first got into trouble with drugs and theft in his teens. By the time he was 24, he was looking at thirty years on a habitual criminal charge.

But Matson appears to have used his prison time to immerse himself in self-help literature and emerged with a book full of checklists and Twelve-Step-type approaches to self-examination designed to rescue readers from "thinking errors" and "criminal choices" that take them in the wrong direction.

Matson's work clearly owes a debt to Steven Covey, Nathaniel Branden and other self-esteem gurus. The writing is much cleaner than Vato Maldito, but what it lacks is the kind of authority that comes with true self-disclosure. The author glosses over his own criminal career in a few pages and then launches into his self-help system, which slogs along for the next 300 pages. There is no special epiphany or insight about what turned his own life around, as one finds in another recent self-help tome by a former local inmate, Weldon Long's The Upside of Fear.

Gallegos gives us a lurid story but no reflection. Matson is all analysis, but no story. Makes you wonder what a mash-up of these two tomes would look like. Bad angel, meet good angel. Just don't waste the mutha.

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