Ex-con Martin (an essay collection, Committing Journalism, 1993) draws on more than 30 years behind bars to give us his first novel: a prison narrative so self-consciously hard-boiled that, but for a few nice details, it might have been written by Mother Teresa after a particularly rough day. We meet Bill Malone just as he's finishing a 14-year stint in the pen for marijuana trafficking. Malone is the silent type, not given to self-analysis or autobiography, and reveals very little of himself in the course of his tale. In prison he began to read philosophy, and now he seems to feel that a life of virtue is the greatest good: ``The metaphysical reasoning of Kant and Schopenhauer appealed to the outlaw in him. Today he felt that he could leave the outlaw life behind and live free. It was an exciting idea.'' But as soon as Malone steps outside--into the world at large--everything becomes more complicated. He finds a job as a dishwasher and falls happily in love, but then gets caught in the crossfire when a local mob war erupts. Malone tries to keep out of the battle, but when his lover's daughter is raped by one of the wiseguys he acts in the only way he knows how. ``It looked like fate was going to make him wash his hands before coming to dinner. Or make him die trying.'' By the close, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that all of the crooked paths are made straight and that Malone is truly a new man: the story's formula is tried and true, and most of the characters have ancestors in the pages of Chandler, Cain, or Zane Grey. Amiable to a fault: the narrator's poker-faced sincerity is closer to that of Horatio Alger than Jean Genet. Cheap uplift stands in the way of credibility.