There are a couple of things that are pretty remarkable about the book 'Stark'. Firstly, the author was a life long career criminal who'd spent the majority of his time in juvenile and adult prison. Secondly, it was written in 1962 yet in language and construction is as modern as it is possible to imagine. Thirdly, despite the writer achieving wide ranging acclaim and success as an author and some-time film actor this book went unknown and unpublished until after his death.
For those steeped in popular culture the name of Ed Bunker will be very familiar, others may not have heard of him at all. To fill in the gaps let me provide a little background, as Mr Bunker is a very interesting character indeed and to know him a little better will greatly improve your appreciation and respect for his work.
Born in 1933 Bunker's early life was a round of foster homes and institutions after his family broke up when he was five. Resentment led to trouble and he soon came to the attention of the authorities and before the age of 14 he'd already racked up several years and several escapes from juvenile detention. By the age of 16 he was heading for adult prison and became the youngest inmate of San Quentin Prison. It was over the next few years that his first forays into writing began. Through a generous patron he got his first typewriter and on parole was given opportunities to work and stay straight. The lure of the easy win grew too strong to resist, however, and Bunker was soon back in the life, his notoriety growing to the point where he featured on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. A failed bank heist led to his final spell in prison in the early 1970's and it was here that he began writing in earnest, producing the first full draft of his debut novel 'No Beast So Fierce' that was published in 1973. A second novel, 'Animal Factory', was published in 1977 followed by the painfully autobiographical third novel 'Little Boy Blue' in 1981. He came to widespread attention in 1992 playing Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs alongside a plainly infatuated Quentin Tarantino which in turn led to the release of a final novel, 'Dog Eat Dog', in 1995 and a fully fledged autobiography, Mr Blue, in 1999. Edward Bunker died in 2005. Following his death the draft for 'Stark' was found amongst his possessions and subsequently published.
Synopsis of Stark~
Stark is a grifter (a con-man) and a drug addict. Despite spells in prison he is good at what he does and is relatively successful but he has a problem. One more conviction and he will be going down for a very long time and a police detective has just such a charge against him. He is therefore forced to play informant against his criminal friends in the hope that he can get off. Being an informant isn't that much of a problem as he has the morals of an alley cat, getting found out and killed is more so. Therefore, he has to walk a fine line between keeping the police happy, keeping the faith of the criminals he is betraying and organising the 'last big score' so that he can escape and start afresh elsewhere. Stark lives for these schemes and complications though, born into the criminal life it is all he knows and all he wants to be. The idea of going straight isn't one that occurs to him, he is a hunter, a predator and everyone is a possible target but as the scheme unfolds he will be lucky to escape with his life.
Stark the Novel~
I have to say I approached this novel with some trepidation. Having read and enjoyed his previous novels, and autobiography, on hearing of his death I assumed that would be that and it was only by chance that I came across this book. The trepidation inevitably comes from the idea of posthumously publishing work the author didn't see fit to publish during their life. The fear of 'cashing in' is unavoidable and the expectation is that it will be of a lower quality, especially when you see that it predates his first novel by ten years. This is manifestly not the case. Stark is the equal, if not superior, of his later work, only the eviscerating Little Boy Blue clearly stands ahead of it.
All of Bunker's work is underwritten by his career criminal background and from having spent half his life in prison. His characters and plots are accessible and instantly believable; there is no artifice and no glamorous concessions - he tells it like it is. These aren't stories of gangsters or mobsters, there are no Hannibal Lecter or Joe Pesci style psychopaths, just plain and simple criminals. Equally there is no attempt to glamorise the criminals or justify their behaviour, the basic idea is simple - some people (like Ed Bunker did) live a life entirely based on crime and these books describe that. It is as close as most of us can get, or would want to get, to the working of the criminal mind.
Bunker writes with articulacy and a fluency that completely belies his upbringing and life. It may have been written in 1962 but the writing is so free from pretence that it remains almost entirely contemporary. This contrasts dramatically with the bizarre foreword written by James Ellroy, which is entirely at odds with the rest of the book both in terms of style and content.
Although written at street level and undeniably cool his delivery never slips into slang or arcane criminal language trickery, all the more remarkable given that this was pretty much the only world he knew in 1962, but remains arrow straight and entirely honest throughout.
An interesting point with this novel is Bunker's choice for lead character and plot. All his later novels were to a greater or lesser extent autobiographical and were populated with characters and events that you could clearly see were sourced from his own direct experience. There's no denying that Bunker was a violent man who served his time for violent crimes, armed robbery and so on, but he would see himself as honest and 'stand up' at least within underworld definitions. Conversely he had little time for con men whom he saw has predators, attacking those weaker than themselves. It is therefore interesting to see the con man lead, Stark, painted so sympathetically and operating in relatively optimistic circumstances, when compared with the largely doomed and self destructive characters of his later work.
This is also probably his most accessible work. Far less violent than his later books it is hard to see many people being in any way offended by it. If this had been published earlier it is interesting to wonder if he would have become better known as it would have appealed to a far wider audience, and see what influence this would have had on his subsequent work.
If you enjoy the crime genre I'd go so far as to say that this is a must read book, and if what I see on line is true there are several more novels and dozens of short stories all written before 'No Beast So Fierce' but that remain unpublished. Here's hoping some more gems will be found there.