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Outside, Looking Back at the Underworld

Authors: Edward Bunker has lived the subject he writes about--crime. In his new book, the former convict and cult celebrity says we're floundering in our efforts to stem the tide of violence.

August 21, 1996|ROBERT DELLINGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Edward Bunker writes about the nether world of society's outcasts with a passion and insight that comes from having lived life close to the bone.

Once branded an incorrigible three-time loser, he has written a jarring new novel, "Dog Eat Dog" (St. Martin's), that exposes the flaws of California's harsh "three strikes" law. As Bunker sees it, while the law may deter some crime, it will also cause murder.

Bunker, 60, has long had cult celebrity from three previous novels. Now, however, it appears from a growing crescendo of praise that "Dog Eat Dog" will admit him to the list of great writers whose talents were molded in the crucible of the cage: Socrates, Cervantes, DeSade, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Voltaire, to name but a handful.

Kirkus Review called it "a jolt of frozen adrenaline," and trade bible Publishers Weekly gave it a coveted star. Said PW: "It is easy to see why Bunker, an ex-con, has such diverse admirers as Quentin Tarantino (who cast him as Mr. Blue in 'Reservoir Dogs'), and William Styron (who contributes an introduction to this novel)."

Bunker is both awed and amused by the acclaim. He's had good reviews before, though never like these. The day he left for a promotional tour of England, he said, "I wrote this book because this country knows it's in trouble, but has no idea why or what to do about it.

"They plant the seed of crime, nurture the growing plant, then scream at the harvest. You cannot sow hemlock and expect to reap wheat."

Bunker believes that we are what we have been taught to be.

"The demagogues are playing on fear," he said, "and telling the lie that harsher laws and longer prison terms will make us safe. We already have a much, much greater percentage of our citizens serving much longer terms than any industrialized country. The only way we can have safety that way is with a neo-fascist police state."

The three-strikes law is already costing lives, he believes, as those committing even minor crimes kill potential witnesses rather than risk that third conviction.

*

Bunker has lived the subjects he writes about. I met him 25 years ago on Terminal Island, where I founded and taught the first creative writing class sanctioned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. He was being held in the hole while awaiting trial on a Beverly Hills bank robbery.

Normally he would have been in Los Angeles County Jail, but the sheriff refused to board him because Bunker had written a searing article in The Times' Sunday magazine in 1972. Called "The Inhuman Zoo," it revealed the almost casual brutality inflicted by deputies.

Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess denounced the piece, saying Bunker had no credibility. Yet it is almost precisely what a blue ribbon committee detailed in a report two decades later.

The Times refused to retract Bunker's allegations and Pitchess literally evicted Bunker from the county jail, forcing the U.S. Marshal's office to hold him at Terminal Island during the trial.

It was during this period that we became friends. We shared aspirations to become writers, a considerably more improbable goal for him because he was still at war with the system and society.

Bunker was born in Hollywood on New Year's Eve, 1935. His mother, a professional dancer who performed as a chorus girl in Busby Berkeley movies, left home and alcoholism drove his father, a studio grip, into a state hospital. At age 4, Bunker was placed in foster homes. He became a chronic runaway while developing an obstinate anti-authority streak.

"I didn't hear about love except in movies when I was a kid," he said.

At 11, Bunker entered his first reformatory, which he describes in "Dog Eat Dog" as "a hothouse for growing maniacs." There he acquired the values of the criminal world, made friends with youths destined for lives of crime. He also rebelled against the authorities and escaped at every opportunity.

His rebellion and the state's retaliation escalated until, at 16, he stabbed a guard. The wound was superficial, but he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and tried as an adult. At 17 he was sent to San Quentin, the youngest convict in that notorious "Bastille by the Bay."

"Even in reform schools I had been a voracious reader," Bunker said. "So I could escape to other worlds on the written word." In San Quentin that reach began to assume depth and discretion.

"When I had been there a little over a year, Caryl Chessman [the infamous 'Red Light Bandit'] published his book, 'Cell 2455, Death Row.' It was a revelation to me that a convict could write a book and have it published."

It was the inspiration that made him commit himself to becoming a writer. His formal education had ended in the seventh grade. Yet, in the next 15 years, while serving time for a series of nonviolent crimes, he would write more than 100 stories and four full-length novels--teaching himself the craft of writing--before finding a publisher to accept his fifth, "No Beast So Fierce" (Norton, 1973). The book was in production when I met Bunker at Terminal Island.

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