Oceanview, Los Angeles, 1962.
Stark is a rat and a con-artist. Nobody's friend. The kind of guy Eddie Bunker met in San Quentin. Stark thinks he can beat the suckers and outsmart the cops. When a big score comes his way, he's lucky to escape with his life. Four others are not so lucky.
Eddie Bunker described Stark as a story about a con man. Eddie didn't think much of con-men, because, as a rule, they preyed upon people weaker than themselves. But he understood them.
Stark was Eddie Bunker's first novel, written in the early 60s and a harbinger of the books that brought him critical acclaim such as No Beast So Fierce. Never published during his life time, the manuscript was only rediscovered after his death and is published in English for the first time by No Exit.
'If ever there was a natural writer, the late, great Bunker was one. Read [Stark], and mourn his loss.'
- Mark Timlin, The Independent [read the full review]
'a fine place to start appreciating the art of Edward Bunker'
- Timothy J. Lockhart, The Virginian-Pilot [read the full review]
Ernie Stark, 28-year-old conman, hustler and heroin addict, could've put the 'anti' in antihero. Cruising the neon-lit jungles of early-'60s Southern California in his uncool station wagon, Stark does a delicate balancing act among the tough cop for whom he's an informer, the pusher with whom he wants to partner, the pusher's smart but self-destructive girlfriend, and the mute drug runner who knows better than to trust him. And that's before Stark tries to double-cross two drug lords, one on each side of the border.
Edward Bunker makes this story come alive – and be worth reading – because he lived its actual counterpart. He began writing fiction in prison and published his first novel from behind bars. Probably no other American author has better captured the hopes, fears, petty triumphs and daily disasters of the dreaming, scheming characters consigned to Loserville. Newport News native William Styron said Bunker was 'among the tiny band of American prison-writers whose work possesses integrity, craftsmanship, and moral passion.' Because of the realism with which Bunker depicts them, Stark, his few friends and his many enemies compel the reader's interest even if few elicit the reader's sympathy.
A competent if relatively unsophisticated novel, 'Stark', the manuscript of which was written in the late'60s or early '70s but not discovered until after the author's death in 2005 at age 71, shows Bunker beginning to find his way as a chief chronicler of the jazzy but desperate one-way trip a career criminal takes to the end of the line. Bunker sets the scene in the novel's first two pages, where a cop named Pat Crowley is forcing Stark, paroled from prison, to learn the identity of 'The Man' who's supplying the heroin that a Hawaiian named Momo Mendoza is selling to Stark and other customer, all under the watchful eye of 'Dummy', Mom's mute drug runner.
As if Stark didn't have troubles enough, he finds himself attracted to Mom's girlfriend, emerald-eyed, auburn-haired Dorie Williams, who stays with Momo for free dope. A honky-tonk angel fallen from a good family, Dorie sardonically tells Stark, 'You don't love anyone. You're like em. Maybe we were meant for one another'.
Bunker pulls no punches when it comes to the drug scene. He shows the pleasure of the fix and the pain of the withdrawal. But as an indication of which way the balance scale swings, every addict in 'Stark' is going to get off the stuff – tomorrow.
After stabbing a guard at a youth-detention facility, Bunker became, at 17, San Quentin's youngest inmate. In prison he taught himself to write, selling blood to pay the postage with which he submitted short stories. After writing this journeyman work, he published four crime novels, including 'No Beast So Fierce' (1973; filmed in 1978 as 'Straght Time' with Dustin Hoffman), and his autobiography. Bunker also acted, playing Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs' (1992).
As James Ellroy notes in the novel's foreword, 'Stark' would have 'made the grade as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback back in the 50s along with the work of John D. MacDonald and Jurt Vonnegut.' This raw, risqué and occasionally risible novel is a fine place to start appreciating the art of Edward Bunker.
Timothy J. Lockhart, The Virginian-Pilot
'a startling freshness that should return Bunker to literary life'
- Sarah Weinman, Los Angeles Times [read the full review]
"Stark" (St. Martin's Minotaur: 224 pp., $23.95) is the first of these manuscripts to see print, a slender effort that tells the story of Ernie Stark, "a two-bit hustler who dreamt that the next score would be the big one. The one that would put him on easy street." As Stark already knows, however, and as he'll learn again and again throughout the course of the novel, "too often, he was outsmarted. If not by the sucker, then by the law." Stark means this literally; early in the book, a police detective blackmails him into informing on local drug dealer Momo Mendoza. Yet in the end, his desire to hit the jackpot overrides everything, especially loyalty.
Bunker's depiction of the seedy side of the Bay Area in the early 1960s is stripped to the bone. Stark's sometime girl Dorie (who is, in turn, a sometime girl to Momo) is doomed by a constant need to put needles into her veins, but Bunker makes clear that she's in more trouble because of the shifting allegiances and cruel indifference of the men in her life. When she suggests to Stark that he might try to be less hard, he responds with laughter. "That ain't me. I look after number one. Me."
This naked survivalist instinct is what makes "Stark" a black-hearted con game, one where the rules don't just fall away, but, in nihilistic fashion, never existed at all. As posthumous novels go, this one has a startling freshness that should return Bunker to literary life.
Sarah Weinman, Los Angeles Times
'Integrity, craftsmanship and moral passion...an artist with a unique and compelling voice'
- William Styron
'Edward Bunker is a true original of American letters. His books are criminal classics: novels about criminals, written by an ex-criminal, from the unregenerately criminal viewpoint.'
- James Ellroy
'At 40 Eddie Bunker was a hardened criminal with a substantial prison record. Twenty-five years later, he was hailed by his peers as America's greatest living crimewriter'
- The Independent