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Book Review

A Longterm Convict Is Reborn as a Writer of Eloquent Prose

EDUCATION OF A FELON: A Memoir By Edward Bunker; Introduction by William Styron; St. Martin's $25.95, 272 pages


"Education of a Felon" is a masterful summation of the hard and brutal life of crime and prison from which Edward Bunker chiseled the vigorous prose that marks him as America's foremost chronicler of prison life (which plays no minor role in American society). With prison-building burgeoning all over the country, there are now more than 2 million prisoners in the nation, 160,000 of them in California. (In what may well be a hopeful sign, this is the first year in 23 that California's prison population--those in for a year or more--has not risen.)

California has been Bunker's whole life. He was born in Hollywood to an alcoholic stagehand father and a dancer, who divorced when Bunker was 4. From then on he was sent to foster homes and military schools in Los Angeles and soon entered youth offender jails in Los Angeles County. There followed stints in San Quentin, where he was the youngest prisoner; Folsom; the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Atascadero; and the Los Angeles County jail.

All told, Bunker spent 18 years in prison in three separate stints for crimes involving robbery, stealing cars, running con jobs, forging checks. It was not until he turned 40 that he fully tasted the life of a free man, and he has not been back behind the walls since.

Looking back on his life, he describes how it was his fierce resistance to authority, even as a young boy, that got him into deeper and deeper trouble. He was sent to San Quentin, where at 17 he was the youngest prisoner, for stabbing a prison guard at Lancaster three years earlier, and for later escaping from a county jail after being sentenced for a rampage with a stolen car. The judges became exasperated with his unrepentant defiance.

In San Quentin, Bunker began to write. Through his defense lawyer, he had been befriended by Louise Wallis, the wife of Hal Wallis, the powerful and talented producer of such films as "Casablanca." She tried to steer him straight, and when he was in San Quentin she sent him the Sunday New York Times. Its book review started him reading. He read American and European writers, and in this book he says that much of his childhood and youth were spent "locked in a cell with a book." "Far more than most, what I thought about the world was the imprint of what I had read, filling the void usually reserved for family and community," he writes.

Bunker wrote six unpublished novels. The seventh, "No Beast So Fierce," was accepted by W.W. Norton, and the publication of the book, with the appearance of an article by him in Harpers on the alarming growth of interracial and ethnic violence in California prisons, won him parole from San Quentin. "I persevered," he explains, "because I recognized that writing was my sole chance of creating something, of climbing from the dark pit, fulfilling the dream, and resting in the sun."

"And by reading this far," he addresses readers at the halfway point of the book, "you must have realized that perseverance is fundamental to my nature. I get up from every knockdown as long as my body will follow my will. I've won many fights because I wouldn't quit, and I have also taken some awesome beatings for not knowing when to quit."

Most of "Education of a Felon" looks at the way that life in prisons and jails is dominated by daily, omnipresent violence. The prisoners are violent to one another and to the guards, just as the guards are to them. The prisoners use knives--which, in prison, are as ubiquitous as drugs--and the guards use their fists, their bodies and tear gas. No one, guard or prisoner, could live in such an environment unsullied.

Bunker's experience recalls the advice of Gov. Ronald Reagan's wise and humane director of prisons, Ray Procunier, who once recounted how he told a friend whose son was in trouble to sell the house and flee California with the son under assumed names--anything to avoid having the boy undergo life in a California prison.

Bunker closes his powerful memoir with moving, defiant words addressed to his 5-year-old son: "Who knows what he will think of his father, but the cards we dealt him are infinitely better than what fate dealt me. I could have played them better, no doubt, and there are things for which I am ashamed, but when I look in the mirror, I am proud of what I am. The traits that made me fight the world are also those that made me prevail."

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