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Little Boy Blue
An Edward Bunker retrospective by Peter Walker

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No Beast So Fierce

Mr Blue

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The Animal Factory

"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 He also started to write many (as yet unpublished) short stories.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 was published.

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 Valley."

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 and prisons.

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


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