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Dog Eat Dog (1996)
A former convict who spent four years in San Quentin, Edward Bunker is best known to most of us as Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's gritty caper flick Reservoir Dogs. He also wrote the screenplays for Straight Time and Runaway Train and has become a best-selling memoirist and novelist.
Now, this is not to say that he isn't also a good writer, but Bunker does seem to be trading pretty heavily on his street cred. In the preface to this book, William Styron, who ought to know better (see review of Confessions of Nat Turner), says that: "Dog Eat Dog is a novel of excruciating authenticity, with great moral and social resonance and it could only have been written by Edward Bunker, who has been there." James Ellroy adds: "Dog Eat Dog is the best novel, about armed robbery ever written! It is pure realism and an uncompromising work of fiction." Which raises the question: if only those who have lived it can know it and write about it, how do we and the reviewers, who presumably haven't experienced it, know that it's realistic? You see, we're hoist on our own petard here. Suffice it to say, I don't think you need to be a crook to write about crime.
That said, this is a good, tough, realistic (see, now I'm doing it) look at the short violent lives of a trio of white hoodlums in Southern California--Charles (Diesel) Carson; Gerald (Mad Dog) McCain, so nicknamed because he is a genuine psychotic, one who scares even other criminals; and Troy Cameron, the "mastermind" of their little gang. The three cut an exciting and bloody swath through the novel, going from juvenile hall to big time heists, before they meet their tragic ends. It is a pleasant change of pace that Bunker does not even pretend that they want to go straight; they are career criminals with little thought of doing anything else.
The one political message that he includes is awfully self contradictory. Several characters announce that on their next job they are willing to do anything and kill anyone because they face life sentences anyway, thanks to "Three strikes & you're out" legislation. Bunker sort of clubs us over the head with his belief that such draconian measures merely make them into more desperate men. This begs the question of why, if they really do engage in this sort of cost/benefit analysis, they commit crimes in the first place. You'd think that such overwhelming fear of incarceration or execution would convince them to get real jobs, wouldn't you?
America has a weird love/hate relationship with the underworld and a rich tradition of crime fiction. There are any number of terrific books by folks like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain (see review of Postman Always Rings Twice), W.R. Burnett, Edward Anderson (see review of Thieves Like Us), Donald Westlake, Mario Puzo, Norman Mailer (see review of The Executioner's Song), Elmore Leonard (see review of Swag), etc.. Edward Bunker certainly does not qualify for inclusion in that pantheon, but this is a good, brisk, brutal effort.
-OBIT: Edward Bunker: Writer, actor (VARIETY, 7/19/05)
Book-related and General Links:
-Edward Bunker Home Page
-Edward Bunker (Tangled Web)
-INTERVIEW: Edward Bunker crime novelist (1997)(Beatrice)
-INTERVIEW: (Book Ends)
-INTERVIEW: The art of crime: Ex-con and man of letters Edward Bunker discusses his new memoir, "Education of a Felon," and life as an upstanding citizen. (Stephen Lemons, Salon)
-REVIEW: of Mr Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade Edward Bunker (this is london)
-REVIEW: of DOG EAT DOG By Edward Bunker (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: Dog Eat Dog by Edward Bunker (Jon Mitchell, Richmon Review)
-REVIEW: LITTLE BOY BLUE By Edward Bunker (Barry Yourgrau, NY Times Book Review)