Prison in the Work of Eddie Bunker
I have just finished reading Stark by Eddie Bunker. Bunker apparently wrote the novel some time in the late 60s and/or early 70s. The manuscript was discovered after his death and published by No Exit Press in 2008. It is an entertaining, somewhat driftless novel which follows the misadventures of the drug addict and grifter of the title, Ernie Stark. Any Bunker fan will enjoy reading some more of his work (No Exit Press also published several posthumously discovered short stories of Bunker’s in the collection Death Row Breakout), but both works fall far short of Bunker’s best novels. One of the reasons Stark is just a tad disappointing is that it lacks the graphic and harrowing depictions of the American prison system and the discrimination against ex-cons which made No Beast So Fierce (1973) and Dog Eat Dog (1995) so gripping and powerful.
Bunker’s knew the prison system well from his own experiences. For the first forty years of his life, Bunker was in and out of prison (mostly in) for a series of violent crimes. In 1950, at the age of seventeen, Bunker became the youngest inmate ever to enter the notoriously brutal San Quentin prison. The death row inmate Caryl Chessman‘s cell was back-to-back with Bunker’s. According to Bunker’s widow, Jennifer Steele, in the afterword to Stark it was Bunker’s contact with Chessman that may have indirectly inspired him to start writing:
They (Bunker and Chessman) spoke through the ventilator pipes about literature. One day a convict surreptitiously brought him a folded magazine under a hand towel and handed it to him through the bars. He opened it up. It was a copy of Argosy magazine. On the cover, the lead piece was “Cell 2455, Death Row by Caryl Chessman” A light bulb exploded. He couldn’t believe it! Writers went to Harvard or Yale or Princeton. Chessman had also been raised by the State. If Chessman could write a bestseller, then why couldn’t he?
It would be a long journey from being a San Quentin inmate to becoming one of America’s greatest crime writers, and it is exactly this journey that makes Bunker’s life-story as extraordinary as any novel. Perhaps the final chapter of this story should be what we could learn today about Bunker’s grim depiction of the realities of the U.S. penal system–that is not to say that Bunker regarded everyone who worked for the Justice system as perpetrating an injustice and that criminals are always wronged and harmless beings. Bunker was skilled at playing moral tricks on the reader, as all of his novels are told from the point of view of unapologetic criminals, and the reader is inclined to root for the leading character no matter how heinous his crimes become. Despite, or perhaps because of this criminal viewpoint, it is fair to say that Bunker’s work could soften even the sternest opponents of prison reform. On this side of the Atlantic, the two big American debates that are most frequently reported are usually gay marriage and healthcare reform. A reappraisal of Bunker’s work might add prison reform to that list, thus if a crime writer can be a good direct or indirect advocate of social change then Eddie Bunker would be one of the best of them.