"For Bunker, crime is nurtured in institutional cradles and
those who are abused and spiritually mutilated in their earliest
youth, whether within the family or the foster home or the reformatory,
grow up to become society’s bloody marauders"
– William Styron
Eddie Bunker is one of the great crime writers around today and
one of the few who has turned his life experiences into authentic
and excellent literature. Born in Hollywood, he spent much of
his life up to the age of 55 in institutions. His family was unable
to cope during the depression – his father was an alcoholic –
and his early life was characterised by frequent stays in various
foster homes and military schools. He constantly ran away and
developed an anti-authoritarian streak which was to stay with
him for a long time.
At 11 years of age he was placed in Camarillo state Hospital for
observation, and one year later was in Whittier, a reform school,
before ending up in reform schools for much older boys. Being
placed in such institutions and its effects is a constant theme
of his writing – the need to survive such places often leaving
him with no option but to fight with the ensuing vicious circle.
At 14 he was paroled and, only 29 days later, he was shot whilst
trying to rob a liquor store. He was sent to youth prison in Lancaster
where he stabbed a guard and spent time in LA county Jail – he
was still too young for San Quentin. Upon release he tried to
go straight but at 16 was arrested for delivering hash and again
did county time but escaped. At this point his luck ran out. He
was 17 years old and was sent to San Quentin for 4 years.
It was whilst at San Quentin that Bunker discovered books for
the first time and began to read everything he could get his hands
on. He also started to write many (as yet unpublished) short stories.
He was paroled at 23 but experienced the near hopelessness of
being an ex-con so brilliantly described in No Beast So Fierce.
As William Styron wrote, Bunker was "not only locked up but
locked out". For over four years he survived by crime until
he was caught after being stopped by the police. He was sentenced
to 6 months to 14 years back at San Quentin, a sentence that was
to be meted out one year at a time, so he would never know how
long he would serve. In the end it was seven years before he was
released. He again read and wrote, often selling his own blood
to raise the money to send his writing to publishers and magazines.
On release Bunker again found life on the outside impossible.
This time, after several brushes with the law, he was caught trying
to rob a bank. He did time at McNeil Island where his anti-authoritarian
streak led him to refuse being locked up in a 10 man cell. For
this protest he was sent to Marion, Illinois, the most feared
prison in the system, and it was here that he finished the aptly
named The Animal Factory. Meanwhile No Beast So Fierce
Described by James Ellroy as "quite simply one of the best
crime novels of the past 30 years" and by Quentin Tarantino
as "the best first person crime novel I have ever read"
No Beast So Fierce is the story of Max Dembo’s attempt
and failure to negotiate straight time. Clearly, as with all Bunker’s
work, this is based on hard and bitter experience. As such it
deals largely with the rage and frustration Dembo feels at a society
which at best tolerates and at worst hates him.
The book opens with Dembo describing, for a man who has spent
most of his adult life in jail, the fear of liberty. He quickly
learns to despise his parole officer, Rosenthal. The hopelessness
of his situation is driven home in endless no-hope job interviews,
dive hotels and the need to grovel. As a result of helping out
a junkie friend he ends up back inside for a nalline test. Whilst
there he realises he only has one choice left open to him:
"I was going to war with society, or perhaps I would only
be renewing it… I declared myself free from all rules except
those I wanted to accept – and I’d change those as I felt the
whim. I’d be what I was with a vengeance: a criminal… Crime
was where I belonged…"
This theme – "Its better to be a criminal on your feet than
a parolee on your knees (or with your face in the dirt)"
– is one which underpins all Bunker’s writing. Dembo is finally
released – but only after three weeks because his parole officer
is on holiday. His ensuing revenge sets him free.
The second part of the book is one of raising tension as Dembo
organises a gang to pull off a series of robberies. Eventually
their luck runs out. The construction, plotting and effortless
prose make this unforgettable. The rising tension and excitement
has the stamp of authenticity. The last robbery ends in disaster
and Dembo is on the run right up to the end.
For Bunker to be a criminal is a choice – a free choice but one
made in the context of the destiny moulded by your past – by years
of abuse in society’s institutions, including the family. Often,
as a result, the only way to find integrity is to clash with authority.
Unfortunately a society which closes its mind – and its doors
– to this problem only perpetuates it. How can this cycle be broken?
The book opens with a quote from William Blake:
In every cry of every man
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind forg’d manacles I hear.
No Beast So Fierce is a profound book which raises many
urgent questions about crime and punishment – and in doing so
questions the so-called freedoms we enjoy.
Now Bunker was becoming famous as his letters were published in
Harpers and The Nation, which were critical of the
prison system and in particular of the terrible consequences of
racism in prisons. During the time Bunker was in prison, for example,
the number of black convicts in prison rose from 15% to 55%. His
notoriety was instrumental in gaining his final parole in 1975.
Published in 1977 and one of the all time great Prison Novels,
The Animal Factory is the tale of two convicts: Roland
Decker is found guilty of a relatively minor drug offence and
is put away in San Quentin where Earl Copen, a seasoned con, takes
it upon himself to help the younger man to survive the brutal
environment of the prison. Decker can only survive by becoming
part of that environment – by learning from it and from Copen how to belong.
One of the strengths of the novel is the way Bunker develops the
relationship between these two men and the way in which the norms
of prison life underpin their interaction. When Decker takes a
minor rap for Copen he gets marked down as a trouble maker and
this, in turn, ends what chances he had for an early parole. The
institution forces choices and Decker becomes a professional con.
Copen and Decker plan an escape and this builds the tension to
the books conclusion.
In 1981 Bunker’s next book appeared – Little Boy Blue:
"In the summer of 1943,a plain black Ford sedan carried three
people through the Cahuenga Pass from Los Angeles into San Fernando
So begins the story of Alex Hamilton. Gifted, angry and independent,
he is given to sudden and violent fits of rage. There is an inexorable
rise through a series of ever vicious and punitive homes, hospitals
As in the two earlier books Bunker’s main protagonist has to fight
– often literally – to maintain his self integrity as the system
attempts to grind him down. There is no way Alex will accept becoming
a punk and any sign of weakness will be seized upon. Often its
not just fellow inmates who are the problem but guards and nurses
who mete out the beatings. Often Alex escapes and is on the run.
He learns the harsh lessons offered to him – never grass on your
mates, don’t tell Them anything, never – and that means never
– lose face, no matter what the situation, because to do so will
mean almost certain abuse at the hands of one and all. However
the books incredible power comes from the fact that it starts
whilst Alex is 12 years old and only ends when he is 16 – on the
threshold of a major life in crime.
In 1978 No Beast So Fierce was made into a critically acclaimed
film Straight Time, starring Dustin Hoffman, and in 1985
he co-wrote the excellent The Runaway Train. Recently he
played Mr Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
Bunker books are true classics of the crime genre, books of pure
realism with an eye for fine detail and character which leave
their mark with the reader. Bunker somehow found a way out of
this quagmire but his writing has a great moral resonance which
forces us to face the reality of those who remain – or are forced
– outside society.
Copyright © Peter Walker 1996