A LOSER LIKE ME

At 40 Eddie Bunker was a hardened criminal with a substantial prison record. Twenty-five years later, he is hailed by his peers as America's greatest living crime writer. James Dalrymple talks to him about his tortured youth, his cult status in Hollywood - including a cameo role in `Reservoir Dogs' - and his new autobiography, `Mr Blue'
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THE HOTEL where I had arranged to meet Eddie Bunker was on the King's Cross Road. And from the big plate-glass window of the bar you didn't have to look very hard to see that nothing changes in this part of London. The do-gooders and the cops launch one clean-up campaign after another, but the kind of commerce that has found a natural home here seems as ageless and indestructible as original sin.

We could see girls barely out of primary school, their faces white and dead, patrolling the streets in squadrons and scrutinising passing males for a hint of interest as their pimps watched from steamed-up cafes and mentally jotted down the sales numbers. In the alleyways all around the station the most polluted and dangerous chemicals were on open sale in twists of paper and dirty cellophane. In the gloom of a late November afternoon all was surface-quiet. But the place seemed to stink of despair, with the possibility of sudden and extreme violence never far away.

I looked across the dimly lit bar at Eddie and felt that this place was just about right for a meeting with a man who can claim to be perhaps the greatest living authority on human cesspits and the wildlife that inhabits them. In fact, compared with the kind of places where Eddie learnt his trade, King's Cross could be regarded as a little tame.

He's getting old now, at 65, and he looks harmless enough, with soft, quizzical eyes that are full of irony and mischief. He looks like the kind of old buzzard you would avoid in a bar because you just know he's going to bore you to death. He also likes to make strong style statements. Recently he has taken to sporting a white Panama hat, worn back to front so that the upturned rear-brim forms a jaunty slash above his pale eyes.

All of which might lull you into misreading this stooped, fast-talking little man from Los Angeles. The name itself may even sound a little phoney, though it's real enough. And the publishing world seems to be drowning in villains these days. You might think he is just another reformed lowlife trying to turn an obscure criminal career into some serious money. Just another wannabe celebrity being touted around London by a PR company trying to flog a ghost-written slice of blood and gore.

You would be wrong on all counts. In the American-dominated, multi-billion- dollar industry of crime literature and films, the name of Eddie Bunker is revered above most others. Those who know and understand these things become hushed at the mere mention of his name. Some call him, simply, The Man. Others describe him as one of the great originals of the old game. The chances are you have never heard the name, and think I am exaggerating. But a look at only a few of his countless friends and admirers will give you an idea of his fame.

Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy, the world's biggest-selling crime writers, acknowledge a huge debt to Bunker's early novels, written 25 years ago and still in print - in fact, both have described him as the greatest living American crime writer. Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight have all based portrayals of violence on him. And Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are fervent admirers.

Tarantino's almost childish veneration for Bunker was such that he refused to go ahead with Reservoir Dogs until Bunker could be tracked down to play a tiny but key cameo role. He played Mr Blue, the frozen, haunted, cruel and unknown face among a line-up of the finest character actors in the world. And the strange thing is that as the camera hovers and glides through the long, brilliant sequence of the bank-robbers breakfasting in a diner before the great orgy of blood-letting begins, it is to the face of Eddie Bunker that your eyes are most drawn.

Actors understand this power. De Niro, Hoffman and Voight have sought him out again and again for over 20 years in order to spend weeks and months at a time in his company, listening to his speech patterns, writing down his esoteric, street-criminal's patois, studying his movements - and transferring this material to the screen.

Look at De Niro in the movie Heat, and you see and hear Eddie the ruthless armed robber. Watch Hoffman as a reformed con in Straight Time and you see a young Bunker emerging from the penitentiary for the first of many times. And in Voight's magnificent performances as the demonic jailbreaker in Runaway Train or as the shadowy criminal fixer in Heat, you see and hear his scary mirror image.

"Watching those two Voight performances was the creepiest thing I ever saw in my life," said Eddie. "He got everything about me, the way I talked, the way I moved my hands, my eyes, the way I walked, the way I laughed. God-dammit, he even began to look like me. We practically lived together for months. He never took his eyes off me. He just drank me in, then used me in two great movies."

But Bunker was never just an old lag, studied like a tame animal and mined for authenticity by Hollywood's counter-feit tough-guys. Even the cynical movers and shakers of the movie business never took liberties with him. There are smart men at the heart of that mad, excessive industry, and they know the real thing when they see it. They recognise him for what he is, an accomplished and important American writer, and give him the respect he deserves.

But it will not only be for the four dark and powerful novels he has written in the past 25 years, which have been compared to the work of Dostoevsky and Camus, that future historians and critics will remember him. The story of his own life - a journey that took him as an abandoned and terrified five-year-old into the terrifying jungle of the Los Angeles underworld and on through the bestial US penal system - is perhaps his greatest achievement. The first 40 years of Bunker's life were so appalling that he should have died - or gone insane - many times. But not only did he survive, he somehow found the strength to use his pain as a basis for his work. And, through this, he went on to find fame and fortune and redemption - and love.

A few years ago, William Styron, another great American writer, described Bunker's life and his work in these terms: "He was dealt a rotten hand at the beginning of his life, and his days thereafter were largely those of a victim in society's brutalising institutions. That he emerged from those dungeons not a brute but an artist with a unique and compelling voice is a tribute to his own invincible will, besides being a sweet victory by the artist himself over society and its contempt for the outcast."

A rotten hand? That's something of an understatement. Dickens could never have dreamt up anything so bizarre as Eddie's childhood. He was born in Los Angeles in 1933. Unwanted by his showgirl mother and drunken father, he was placed in a series of sinister foster homes, rebelled, ran away, and finally began to live like a little wild animal on the streets, parks and hills of the Los Angeles basin. In his newly published autobiography, Mr Blue, Memoirs of a Renegade, Bunker writes beautifully about this child, moving endlessly across the landscape, learning to forage for food and hide from authority. By day, he slept in alleyways or derelict houses. And when night fell he broke into old movie lots, where there were lakes and jungles and western storefronts, and played his lonely games.

Each time they caught him, he ran again. When he was seven, they suspected he was psychotic and gave him mental tests which showed he had an IQ of almost genius level and the mental age of an 18-year-old. By the time he was in his early teens he was fully trained for the streets, an accomplished thief, a natural fighter with knife and fists, who loved the company of prostitutes, drug dealers, pimps and other lowlife. And already he was being swept along by a current that led, inevitably, into the penal system.

"It's a kind of fairground slide that takes you all the way down," he said. "I went from being arrested on minor offences to doing hard time in San Quentin within seven years." He was 17: "the youngest prisoner in San Quentin, and I had to fight simply to stay alive. I was extremely violent right from the start, and my philosophy was to hurt others before they hurt me. I stabbed guards, I stabbed guys who tried to attack me, I ended up in `the hole' [solitary confinement] for months on end, I just fell deeper and deeper into the system. I just would not give in to anybody. They beat me to a pulp again and again, with prison doctors looking on. But I just kept fighting back. They thought I was crazy, so they put me in isolation, in the dark, where I almost did go crazy."

Read too quickly, his account of his life from the age of five to 45 is like the flickering images produced by the fast-forward button on a violent and pornographic videotape. But read too slowly it seems to be one long bad dream, with a soundtrack of the screams of male-rape victims merging with the moans of men going insane and gouging out their own eyes (both incidents which he witnessed).

The spells of suffering inside the huge charnel houses of San Quentin and Folsom Jail were interspersed with brief periods on the outside. Bunker was no natural victim. He was an eager participant. He tried every kind of criminal enterprise. He used and dealt drugs, from marijuana to heroin, but was never remotely addicted. He carried out armed robberies. He tried to run a protection racket for prostitutes and their pimps. He had long and loving relationships with whores, because they were the only women who would not crack up when he went back inside.

"But I got rid of women when I went to jail," he said. "I just didn't want to worry about what they were up to, would they wait for me, all that crap. Besides, there were always girls waiting on the outside when I came out. I guess you could say I was the most rootless, faithless and loveless guy you could imagine."

And the strange thing was that he seems to have loved every minute of it at first. "I was free as a bird," he said. "I lived on my wits and I wasn't scared of anything. You take chances and you can make a lot of money on the streets. And most of the time you can win. But you just gotta be careful and keep the odds on your side. The trouble with me was that I always had more guts than brains, and gradually, over the years, things started to come loose too many times. As a criminal you know you are going to go down sometimes, but as I got older and less smart, and began to drink a little too much, I started to go down too often.

"I gradually began to spend most of my time in prison, and I began to think that I would never get out. That's when I started to read. And, although I didn't know it, those books began to change my life. Something big was happening to me. A whole world was slowly opening up. I felt a bit like I was being reborn."

He was in his late teens, and he read everything that the San Quentin prison library had. In an act of desperation, to escape from the nightmare of his surroundings, he locked himself in his cell at shut-down every afternoon and read for 12 hours at a time. Five to ten books a week. Novels, both pulp and serious. Biographies. History and politics. The works of the great philosophers. "I just sucked all that good stuff in, like a man dying of thirst," he said.

In his early twenties, one book in particular struck a deep and enduring chord in his lost soul. "It was The Outsider, by the British writer Colin Wilson," he said. "It seemed to speak directly to me. It was telling me that there was another way to live my life. And in a way it told me that I, too, could perhaps be a writer. I'll always be grateful to Colin Wilson, and I'd really like to meet him one day."

In addition, a few years earlier, Bunker had had the biggest piece of good fortune any dead-end kid ever had. His lawyer was a friend of a woman named Louise Wallis, the wife of the movie mogul of the day, Hal Wallis, and one day, while on parole, he found himself being driven up to their mansion in the hills.

"To this day I don't know why she chose to befriend me," said Eddie. "I thought she was looking for a young gigolo, because she was still an attractive woman in her early fifties. But I guess she just liked helping people, and she gave me a room in one of her houses. She also gave me a typewriter and a desk, and told me that if I wanted to be a writer I should knuckle down and write."

Louise Wallis opened up a whole world to her young protege. She was one of Hollywood's top hostesses, and through her Bunker met some of the greatest artists and most powerful tycoons of the era, men like Tennessee Williams and Aldous Huxley. He was even taken to San Simeon, home of the William Randolph Hearst, where he encountered the elderly, dying multi- millionaire publisher, the real-life Citizen Kane, by the swimming-pool.

It was a golden interlude in his young life. He had a home, a wealthy benefactor, a job as her chauffeur, and all the time in the world to write. But the lure of the streets was too strong. "I guess I just loved it out there," he said. "I loved the drugs and the girls and the bright lights and within a few weeks I was back in trouble again. And pretty soon I was back in prison, this time for a long stretch. I guess I was pretty much in despair then. I could see no way out, and I guess I came close to going insane."

His final criminal spree came after a parole violation when he set out by car across the United States, committing a series of dangerously inept armed robberies, and becoming a name on the FBI's most wanted list. "By then I was crazy, scared, totally fucked up and terrified of spending my life in jail. I knew that if they got me on an armed robbery charge they would throw away the key."

He was finally caught and taken back to Folsom, where, encouraged by Louise Wallis on the outside, he got down to the serious business of learning how to write. At first it didn't go well.

"Those first books were absolute fucking crap," he said. "I wrote six of them. I tried every style, but I just couldn't get it to work. But I had another stroke of luck when I picked a New York literary agent out of the book and sent the stuff to him. He told me it was unpublishable, but he didn't tell me to get lost. For some reason he encouraged me to keep trying. And I did. Year after year. Finally, in desperation, I wrote a book in the first person, about me and my life, and, on his instructions, I started to cut every spare word, every loose sentence, every unnecessary description. I cut and I cut, and suddenly I found my own voice, and I knew I had achieved something that could be called art.

"But I was close to giving up. If this book had failed I think I would have given up. And I think I would have had no hope left. I think I might have died, just another dried-up, meaningless, friendless loser."

Then one day something unforgettable happened. A prison guard told him that the warden had authorised a call to a New York number. It was the number of the faithful agent, and the news was stunning. Not only had one of the biggest publishing houses in the city accepted his prison novel, No Beast So Fierce, but Harper's magazine wanted an article he had written for their cover story.

"I guess I had made a lotus grow from the mud," said Eddie. "And although I had another three years' hard jail time to do, I knew that this part of my life was over. Somehow I had survived. I had been given a gift. The gift of being able to write. And I knew that there was a different life waiting for me out there. I didn't expect for one moment that it would be a happy life. The concept of real happiness was beyond me, I guess.

"But from the moment I walked out through those gates as a man well in his forties, life has been a series of marvellous experiences, each one better than the last."

By the time of his release Eddie was already famous. No Beast So Fierce was a publishing sensation, in America and in Europe. The movie rights made him financially secure for the first time in his life, and he met his first big star, Dustin Hoffman, who played a fictional version of Bunker in the film of the book, renamed as Straight Time. Hoffman, who has become a lifelong friend, put up the money himself to buy the rights to Bunker's second novel, Animal Factory, which was published to more rave reviews.

Bunker describes his writing style as "slow but relentless", and in the two decades that followed he wrote only two more novels, Little Boy Blue and Dog Eat Dog. He claims that every word he writes is based on an incident from his own life. He writes and rewrites endlessly, looking always for the "core of honesty" that he believes lies at the heart of all good literature. He has never, he claims, written for profit. "I just want people to understand the criminal mind and the way that people can be sucked into dark places and dark ways of life."

Critical response to his work continued to be glowing. But, although all his books are still in print, the name of Eddie Bunker has never quite lodged itself in the public consciousness in the same way as those of Hollywood-conscious stylists like Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. But Bunker didn't give a damn about popular acclaim and did not envy the success of his great friend Ellroy. He found peace and a kind of fulfilment in his new life as a serious, committed writer who really understood the bleakness and ill-defined moral borders involved in the world of crime and punishment. He went on to produce what Martin Scorsese reckons is one of the greatest screenplays ever written, for Runaway Train, and was nominated for an Oscar. And he accepted dozens of small acting roles offered by directors who just wanted him on their sets, so becoming advisor, dialogue consultant and buddy to a whole generation of movie icons.

He laughs at this. "I love doing those little roles. It lets you see the world and it pays my health insurance. And I enjoy the company of movie people. They're just like everybody else. Some of 'em are turkeys, phoneys, fakes, assholes - and some are great people, who care about their work and want to give a genuine performance.

"Occasionally, when I get together with some of them in Hollywood, I get a little rough with them. I tell them that they are all just fakes - and I'm the real thing. It's a kind of joke and we all laugh about it. But I guess I'm also making a serious point. In many ways those actors use me to validate them ... to validate their manhood. They worry about all that. I don't give a shit. I'm not tough any more. There's no anger left in me. It's all burned out years ago.

"I've got other things in my life now. Things that are better than the money and the fame and the Hollywood stuff. Things that are so good that when I wake up in the morning I can't believe I've been so lucky."

Bunker's eyes soften. He still regards his own love story as the least believable part of his own life. Over 25 years ago, shortly after his final release and while living in a halfway house, a tall, blond and beautiful girl of 24 called Jennifer was appointed by the courts to be his personal counsellor. Eddie, who admits he was physically and mentally burned out after years in prison, was grateful for the support and friendship of this wealthy girl from another world who had come into his life. But he had no doubt that she was far beyond his reach.

"Romance? You gotta be kidding," he said. "I was over 40 and had spent 18 years in prison, most of it in the hole. When she was riding her pony on the family estate I had a fat rat running over my macaroni sandwich in my five-by-three-foot cell. Nah, there was no romance. Besides, she was already married."

But they stayed in touch and several years later met again and, to his astonishment, she agreed to set up home with him. Two decades on, they live in a large house in the fashionable Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, just south of Hollywood, in roughly the same area where the five-year- old Eddie ran wild and free and fell down the black hole into a kind of hell all those years ago. And sharing their home is another five-year- old, their son, Brendan.

"Having a kid at the age of 65 has been the strangest thing of all," he said. "I think, on reflection, it is the only thing that has ever thrown me completely. I mean, how the hell did I get from that prison cell to here. It's a question I ask myself every morning of my life. I wake up, look around this beautiful house in this beautiful part of the city, see this beautiful girl and this great kid sitting across the breakfast table, and wonder just how the hell all this happened to a loser like me." 2

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