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Edward Bunker remembers his first sentence. he wrote from the heart. And from experience: 'Two boys went to rob a liquor store.'

October 01, 2000|ROBERT DELLINGER | Robert Dellinger began writing professionally in prison and now has more than 50 credits for his work on prime-time television shows

City of Angels is a misnomer. City of ex-cons is more like it. This town has more former convicts than anywhere in the country, and novelist Edward Bunker is well aware of how integral their subculture is to the mainstream that locks more and more citizens away each year.

Retrieving a steam iron from a corner of his cell-like converted garage, Bunker begins getting himself "bonarooed," the convict's age-old practice of giving attitude to prison clothes, declaring that you can lock up a man but you can't lock out his desire for individuality or incarcerate his spirit. Meticulously he spray starches a freshly washed short-sleeved shirt and embeds razor-sharp creases in his khaki pants.

"Prison habits die hard," he says. Then he steps out of his bougainvillea-draped writer's studio and climbs into the burgundy BMW 328i on the driveway outside his neatly landscaped English Tudor-style home in Hancock Park. "We're everywhere," says Bunker, 66, as he steers through the clean streets of his upscale neighborhood toward the meaner streets he grew up on and the gritty corners most ex-cons are never able to transcend. "But people don't want to see us. We're anonymous. We hide our pasts as we get on with our lives."

Usually. A few nights earlier, a crowd of Angelenos had listened raptly at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard as Bunker read from his new memoir, "Education of a Felon." Among those absorbing the tales of criminality and life in the joint was actor-director Steve Buscemi, who recently turned Bunker's semi-autobiographical prison novel "The Animal Factory" into a film starring Willem Dafoe--and featuring Bunker. Two other Bunker crime novels are in development, and the author was hardly shrinking from his past when he played the criminal Mr. Blue in "Reservoir Dogs," the noir comedy that launched Quentin Tarantino--who happens to be a Bunker fan. Telling the world about the lives of Los Angeles criminals and life behind bars has earned Bunker his living and an international literary reputation. He's an icon in France, which has long embraced authors who lean toward existentialism--the doctrine that man forms his essence in the course of living as he chooses.

Now, as he drives freely through the city he loves on a warm spring afternoon, the author offers a running narrative, the Bunker Grayline tour of Los Angeles crime scenes--mainly his. In a parking lot near Farmers Market, he shows me the spot where police removed his front teeth with the butt of a shotgun after he robbed a Beverly Hills bank; in Echo Park, it's the Mom & Pop grocery store, where he shoplifted at age 7. After a while, we're cruising the Arroyo Seco off the 110, and he's showing me side streets and box canyons that provided settings for "No Beast So Fierce," his attention-grabbing first novel, where his fresh-out-of-prison protagonist drives up a dirt road overlooking downtown in search of the sort of shack that still exists in some dusty niche:

The automobile bounced, its headlights spraying over bare earth and clumps of dry weeds. This part of the city had been built up when flatland was still cheap and the builders had bypassed the hills to avoid construction costs. The buildings at the bottoms were now falling apart and the hills were still bare, while bulldozers erased orange groves fifty miles away.

Bunker's work, then and now, focuses with cold honesty on parts of town and types of people that many Southern Californians are oblivious to or ignore. His face, liberally etched by countless brawls in juvenile hall, reform school, jail and prison, matches the hard-edged places his books describe. A scar from a 1953 knife wound runs from his forehead down to his lip. His nose is what you would expect. As always, there is something remote about Bunker as he steers through the hills. It is not just that his soft, grizzled voice is difficult to understand, or that chitchat is not among the arrows he carries in his conversational quiver. He seems to be struggling with an inner vulnerability, reluctant to let people get too close for fear that they'll invade spaces he has marked off limits.

Not that any passing motorist would match Bunker's past with the present as he sits comfortably behind the wheel of his convertible, top down, using the stub of his cold stogie to punctuate his observations. He looks tough, but that is belied by a ready smile and a manner one writer called courtly. The writer would not have used that word had he met Bunker when I did.

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