“I rode off the prison property with sixty-five dollars, a cheap suit (ten years out of style), a set of khakis and change of underwear in a brown parcel, and a bus ticket to Los Angeles.”
Edward Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce is a perfect example of the payoff we readers get when a writer writes what he knows. That’s the only explanation for the authenticity and pulsing desperation of this raw, visceral story about an ex-con’s failed attempt to go straight. Edward Bunker’s life (1933-2005) was a series of institutions–beginning with foster homes, a military school, and juvenile hall, and by 1951, at age 17, Bunker was the youngest inmate at San Quentin. Paroled in his early twenties, he tried holding down jobs but eventually returned to crime. Locked up and then re-released, Bunker’s subsequent crimes were much more serious, including bank robbery. Back in prison, Bunker published his first novel, No Beast So Fierce in 1973. After that last stint in prison, Bunker did not return to crime when he was paroled in 1975, and instead he made a living as a writer and as an actor. Bunker played Mr. Blue in Tarantino’s film 1992 Reservoir Dogs, and the title of Bunker’s memoir is Mr Blue: The Memoirs of a Renegade.
No Beast So Fierce begins with Max Dembo sitting in his cell in San Quentin on his last night inside. After an eight year sentence, Max wants to go straight (“the lunchbucket routine”), but we know almost immediately that Max’s expectations are off when he complains that he wrote over 200 letters for job applications and got zero response in return. Fellow convict, Leroy tries to set him straight:
“Look here, Max,” he said, “I went through the same shit you’re going through–in your mind–until I decided not to fight destiny, and my destiny was to be a criminal and spend three-fourths of my life in prison. Maybe your destiny is different. But someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe twenty years from now when you’re fifty, you’re gonna realize that whatever you are and whatever you’ve done, it couldn’t have been very different. You’ll see that you’re required to do this in life, and when you’re at the end and everything’s totalled, you’ll have been that, whatever it is. Hope is still ahead of you–but someday it’ll be behind you.”
Since Max is out on parole, he’s required to meet his parole officer and “bête noir,” Joseph Rosenthal. Max understands his relationship with Rosenthal is crucial, but before their first meeting, Max wants to “exercise some choice, buy something,” and so he buys a twenty-five cent cigar and a half pint of vodka. Max admits to Rosenthal he’s a “little drunk.”
If he accused me of doing wrong, I knew I had a prick and could act accordingly, lying to him forever after. If he passed over it with humor or understanding, I would know that I could manipulate him. But he did neither.
So this first meeting with Rosenthal, a significant figure in Max’s subsequent downfall reveals a lot about Max’s psychology. It doesn’t take long for Max to butt heads with Rosenthal, and as Max explains to the reader:
Confrontation with authority was a game I’d played often, and I knew its unfairness.
Although Max starts out with the best of intentions of going straight, the odds are stacked against him. It’s hard to pinpoint when things go wrong, but arguably, the turning point is the minute he gets off the bus. His old friends are still involved in crime on one level or another–even Willy, who has a family, lives in poverty and works, has a sideline as a heroin dealer and uses too much of his own product. It’s crucial for Max to get a job, and he walks himself into blisters trying to find even menial employment, but no one wants to hire an ex-con. Rosenthal wants Max to move into a halfway house, and Max refuses. In possibly the book’s most poignant scene, Max, in his last honest communication with Rosenthal, begs for some understanding:
You’ve got to realize that I’m not like you. I’m too warped and tangled by too many yesterdays to be like you. This doesn’t mean I’m fated to be a menace to society. If I believed my future had to be like my past, I’d kill myself. I’m tired. I can bend enough to stay within the law, but I’m never going to be the guy who goes home to San Fernando to a wife and kids. I wish I was that guy, but I’m not.
While Max thinks that he can argue his case to Rosenthal, he also thinks he has a bargaining position for some basic freedoms:
Bend a little and I’ll bend a little. Just ask that I don’t commit any crimes, not that I live by your moral standards. If society demands that, society shouldn’t have put me in foster homes and reform schools and twisted me. And these last eight years. Shit, after that, nobody would be normal. Just understand my predicament. I don’t know anyone but ex-convicts, hustlers and prostitutes. I don’t even feel comfortable around squarejohns. I like call girls instead of nice girls, I don’t need a Freudian explanation, which wouldn’t change the fact anyway. But because I prefer going to bed with a prostitute doesn’t mean that I’m going to use an acetylene torch on a safe.
Max’s powerful argument that he’ll never be a perfectly upstanding citizen resonants with sincerity, and while we hope the best for Max as he struggles to fit in to society on the humblest level, at times, he isn’t a particularly likeable character. He’s too damaged for that, and it’s a credit to the author that Max is sympathetic in spite of his actions, his bad choices, and his predilection for violence.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of the novel is the way Max treats other people. There’s a definite nod to humanity here in the times Max risks his neck to treat people with a little consideration, and as it turns out this character trait is Max’s Achilles’ heel. One example of this is when Max stumbles across another ex-con, Augie Morales, and Max risks Augie shooting up heroin in his room as Augie’s presence on the street will likely get him arrested & sent back to prison. Perhaps Max stubbornly resists abandoning the behaviour model of showing kindness as he has too often been the brunt of the alternative–dehumanization in the various institutions. In addition, part of Max’s downfall is caused by the way he sees the world in terms of predator & victim, and he refuses to fall into the latter category. We see the predator-victim dynamic early in the novel through the violent, explosive relationships between prisoners.
And though it was free choice, it was also destiny. Society had made me what I was (and ostracized me through fear of what it had created) and I gloried in what I was. If they refused to let me live in peace I didn’t want to. I’d been miserable that week of struggling–miserable in my mind. Fuck society! Fuck their game! If the odds were vast, fuck that, too. At least I’d had the integrity of my own soul, being the boss of my own little patch of hell, no matter how small, even if confined in my own mind.
When morning came I was strong; I’d transcended decision.
The novel is full of well-drawn characters: shabby ex-con Willy who’s trying to juggle family demands with a heroin business, “vice-ravaged” party animal Red, former bail bondsman Abe Meyers, shyster lawyer Allen McArthur, and Allison, the girl who asks no questions. Occasional “writerly” additions to the author’s blunt style do not complement his natural talent and instead feel forced and discordant. Here’s one example, “But for all the exultation, the joy of leaving after eight calendars in prison was not unalloyed,” and “In this fertile abyss, this void, an encompassing indignation bloomed.” Fortunately these occurrences are few, and the author appears to grow more comfortable with his own style very quickly. Bunker shows us Max, a ex-con who wants to go straight, who is a fairly reasonable fellow, and someone whose desperation oozes from the page, but by the end of the novel, Max’s raw violence and criminal intelligence explodes….This really is a fantastic read.
No Beast so Fierce was made into the film Straight Time. And the book’s title is a quote from Richard III:
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity, but I know none, therefore I am no beast.