No Beast So Fierce

No Beast So Fierce

by Edward Bunker


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The basis for the film Straight Time, this compelling novel, first published in 1973 and written by a man who had spent most of his life in prison, is the story of an ex-con¿s attempt to negotiate the straight world¿and his swan dive back into the paradoxical security of crime.

After eight years spent locked up, Max has gotten very good at being a prisoner. He knows the guards, the inmates, and how to survive. But the parole board has decided that he has sufficiently reformed, and it¿s time for him to say goodbye. When Max reaches the outside world, he finds that freedom doesn¿t make anything easier.

Based on his own experiences in prison, Edward Bunker first drafted No Beast So Fierce in the 1950s, while incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison. He spent the next two decades in and out of jail, writing essays for various magazines and working on the novel, which was finally published in 1973. Eighteen months later, the book was used as evidence that he was fit to leave jail. He received parole, and spent the rest of his life a free man.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842432662
Publisher: No Exit Press
Publication date: 02/28/2008
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 690,897
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Born in Los Angeles, Edward Bunker (1933-2005) spent many years in prison before finding success as a novelist. He began writing while serving time at San Quentin, inspired by his proximity to the infamous death-row inmate Caryl Chessman. Bunker was still in jail when his first book, No Beast So Fierce, was published in 1973. After his release, he spent the rest of his life writing novels that drew on his prison experience. He played Mr. Blue in the film Reservoir Dogs.

Read an Excerpt

No Beast So Fierce

By Edward Bunker


Copyright © 1973 Edward Bunker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-3242-2


I SAT on the lidless toilet at the rear of the cell, shining the hideous, bulb-toed shoes that were issued to those being released. Through my mind ran an exultant chant, "I'll be a free man in the morning." But for all the exultation, the joy of leaving after eight calendars in prison was not unalloyed. My goal in buffing the ugly shoes was not so much to improve their appearance as to relieve tension. I was more nervous in facing release on parole than I had been on entering so long ago. It helped slightly to know that such apprehensiveness was common, though often denied, by men to whom the world outside was increasingly vague as the years passed away. Enough years in prison and a man would be as ill-equipped to handle the demands of freedom as a Trappist monk thrown into the maelstrom of New York City. At least the monk would have his faith to sustain him, while the former prisoner would possess memory of previous failure, of prison—and the incandescent awareness of being an "ex-convict", a social outcast.

I finished with the shoes, set them beneath the bunk and stood up. The cell was small, less than five feet wide. The bunk occupied so much space that my shoulder brushed against the wall as I passed by the bunk toward the front. How many hours had I spent in this cell? From four in the afternoon until seven in the morning, for eight long years. It was beyond computing in my mind. Now the cell was especially barren. I'd given away my small collection of books, the braided throw rug, the soap, shaving cream and toothpaste—everything. "Aw fuck it," I muttered meaninglessly, without object in mind. I looked out through the bars—thirteen of them, set so close together that only a hand and wrist would pass through. Around this cell were five hundred others, most of them containing two prisoners (I'd angled a single cell after five years) locked down for the night. A typewriter clattered nearby: a letter home or a petition for habeas corpus. Live steam in a pipe thunked and clanked. But the loudest sound was several convicts entertaining themselves with a game of the dozens. It had been going on for half an hour but only now caught my attention.

"Say, motherfucker!" one called.

"What the fuck do you want, asshole?"

"There's a flick of your mama in today's Chronicle."

"I didn't know you read the society page."

"It's in the sports section. She's wearin' boxin' gloves and a headguard, gonna fight Liston for the title. She wrote a poem, too. Wanna dig it?"

"Fuck your mother, punk!"

"Man, cough up the poem," someone else yelled.

"Here we go," the poet said. "'I'm the Lady White Hope / My pussy's so long I use it for a jump rope / I'll beat that spook into a fit / I've got dynamite in my dukes and muscles in my shit / I'll wipe that chimp like a chump / When I finish with him, his face is gonna be one big bump / I'm the Lady White Hope / I'm so bad I wipe my ass on pictures of the pope.' How's that sound, brother?" the poet finished—amid laughter.

"Look, dick breath motherfucker. Get off my mama's back or I'm gonna put your pedigree on the tier."

"I'm your daddy, punk."

"My ass. You're the result of a few drops of syphilis from a bulldog's dick rammed in your transvestite father's ass. You shot shit out and hatched on a hot rock."

A Negro voice full of anger interrupted. "You honkies better ease up on them 'spooks' an' things."

I'd been expecting this response, and my stomach went tight though I was uninvolved and leaving in the morning.

"Fuck you, nigger!" someone else yelled.

"Where you live an' we'll see in the mawnin'?"

"Yeah, honky redneck motherfucker!" another Negro yelled. "What's your cell number?"

The cell block was silent. Murders had come from less than this.

"It's my room, for your information. And if you're inquiring about my address, my dear mother warned me against having anything to do with ghetto riff-raff."

The reply, so unusual for prison, brought a blast of laughter—but afterward there was silence except for the typewriters. The thoughtless, vulgar repartee could have ignited another prison race war. There'd been several during my stay, each resulting in several deaths and dozens of wounded. And there were no uninvolved inmates. Those who tried to stay uninvolved were the most likely to be ambushed; they made the best targets because they were unprepared. It'd be a bitch, I thought wryly, to have some dumb nigger run a shiv in me the morning I'm blowing this jail.

Attention went out through the cell house's barred windows to where the prison property fell into San Francisco Bay. The banked floodlights illuminated everything except the black water. The massive concrete and steel buildings gleamed; so did the gun towers set in shallow water on stilts. Two miles away, across the black pond, were rolling hillsides. Only their lights, cast like handfuls of jewels on black velvet, suggested their outline. A highway curved along the base of the hillsides. Headlights and ruby taillights streamed endlessly. Further marking the highway was red, silver, green, blue neon. I didn't know what signs the neons represented, for I'd only seen them in the distance. And when I'd come to this cell the highway had been dark except for a handful of automobiles, and the hillsides had been empty. The landscape had changed. The question was, had the world changed too much for me? Had the mental and emotional tools necessary for life outside—different tools than those necessary for life in prison—gone rusty in eight years? Again I was back into my anxieties. The churning caused me to grab the cell bars and shake with all my strength. They gave not a millionth of an inch.

Leroy Robinson appeared on the tier outside, carrying a water bucket with a long spout that would go through the bars. The cells had only cold water. The inside of the bucket gave off steam. He caught me wrestling with the unyielding bars. "Say, motherfucker, what're you doin'? Dynamic tension?"

"I'm breakin' out, damn fool. Can't you see!" Leroy made me smile; he always made me smile, both through friendship and because he transmitted, perhaps by osmosis, his outlook of absurd humor. Leroy would make jokes on the way to the gas chamber. He used wit both to diminish confrontation with his own failures (he was a four-time loser) and to put the world in perspective.

"I know what you're tryin' break out from," he said. "You're up tight as a Thanksgiving turkey the second week in November. I brought you something for your nerves." He put the water bucket down and put his palm through the bars. Wrapped in the cellophane from a cigarette package were two yellow nembutals. They were worth a carton of cigarettes, a considerable sum when ten cartons could get someone stabbed, and twenty cartons would buy a killing.

I unwrapped the capsules and put them on the bunk while he poured hot water into a peanut butter jar and I mixed my last dab of instant coffee into it. The coffee washed down the pills.

"Don't forget to call my sister and tell her I'm okay."

"Man, you ought to write yourself. She wants to hear from you."

"Look, she's married; they've got kids growing up in suburbia. They live in a different world."

I shook my head. Leroy pulled the walls around him like a cloak.

"I used to get full of anxiety," he said. "That was when I was going out with some crazy ass idea of straightening up."

"Well, that's my idea. I'm tired of this shit." I hesitated to express my fears. It would be shameful to whine when he would give anything to change places. And he'd probably make jokes of my worries. Yet, after hesitation, they bubbled out—my fears, vague except for not having a job: "I wrote two hundred letters and didn't get an answer," I said.

"Damn, motherfucker, you don't expect anyone to hire an exconvict sight unseen, do you?"

"No, but somebody should have at least said to come see them."

"I don't have that problem. I start stealin' from the gate."

"That's what I don't want to do. Man, I can root in some fool's cash register—but I want to hang it up. Eight years in this stinkin' fuckin' place is enough."

"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. That's really the point of children, to have someone to pin hope to. I have no children, that's why I have so much feeling for you."

It was the most serious statement I'd ever heard from Leroy. I might have argued with his pronouncements, but preferred to keep the moment of rapport. "Well," I said, "I just hope I last longer than you did. I hope I can handle it out there."

"Shit, I didn't get busted because I couldn't handle it. It was just the way the cookie crumbles. Besides, I'd just as soon be in this concrete cunt as be out there without having anything. I'm like a fool in a poker game who's lost all his dough except a few cents. Ain't no way to quit. Maybe I'll win next time, get me a four- or five-year run. After that they can bury me. Fuck it."

"I don't want to come back, next year or twenty years from now. I just want to live like everybody else lives."

"More power to you—if that's for you. It ain't for me, and I accept it."

"I'm burned out."

"If you can handle the lunchbucket routine ..."

"I'm gonna try. I'm scared, though. I'm trying their game. That's something new. Besides, I don't even know if I remember how to fuck a broad anymore. I've been down so long I might want young boy butt."

"Just get one of them hookers to put a carrot on her stomach until you get used to things."

We stood a few more minutes. The conversation was broken with long silences. My departure upset the chemistry of our relationship. Friendship remained the same, but the paths of our lives were separating, and between us would be the prison walls—and on each side of those walls was a different universe.

A bell rang, bouncing off the walls. The public address system blared, "Final lockup for count. Final lockup."

"Later on, brother," Leroy said, sticking his hand through the bars to shake goodbye.

Music came from the earphones until midnight. The nembutal relaxed me, but failed to drive me to sleep. My thoughts turned, sometimes to the music, to the squeak of footsteps as a guard prowled the gunrail, to the hollow gasp of a flushing toilet, or a muttered curse torn from an anguished dream. Mainly, I thought of freedom, of how tired I was of crime and punishment. Having something different would require my being something different. Was that possible? I was articulate, fairly intelligent, very well read (in eight years a cretin would become well read), but what could I do? My only previous job had been selling used cars in New Orleans, and I'd taken that job for cover because of a federal fugitive warrant. I was thirty years old and I'd never filed an income tax return, or used my social security card.

A job was important. Even more than money it would be an anchor holding me stable until I made the transition to a new life. The lack of even a single reply to my letters worried me. Was it prophecy? Would it be different when I was there? Could I hide my background?

My letters seeking a job, though truthful, diminished the full truth. Faces would blanch if the facts had been complete: "Dear Sir," I thought. "Do you have a position for a journeyman burglar, con man, forger and car thief; also with experience as armed robber, pimp, card cheat, and several other things. I smoked marijuana at twelve (in the '40s) and shot heroin at sixteen. I have no experience with LSD and methedrine. They came to popularity since my imprisonment. I've buggered pretty young boys and feminine homosexuals (but only when locked up away from women). In the idiom of jails, prisons, and gutters (some plush gutters) I'm a motherfucker! Not literally, for I don't remember my mother. In my world the term, used as I used it, is a boast of being hell on wheels, outrageously unpredictable, a virtuoso of crime. Of course by being a motherfucker in that world I'm a piece of garbage in yours. Do you have a job?"

The mental letter contained too much ugly truth for the humor I'd intended—not the whole truth, but that which was important for the world to judge me. I could not tell them the truth of myself; perhaps nobody can tell the world the truth. Maybe truth is something with dripping organs, gears, unfilled holes, a background of nothingness on a field of melting and shattered time. Maybe I could tell them my memories of being thrown into a pitch black cell, naked, without even a mattress, me and the concrete and darkness—when I was nine years old. Or of being handcuffed to a hot steam radiator in juvenile hall and having a grown man kick my ribs in—I was eleven years old. (But to give the man justice, I had spit on him.)

Whatever the truth, I wanted peace. Tomorrow would be a new beginning, the phoenix rising from the ashes.

It was dawn. The sparrows that nested in high corners of the cell house were unbelievably noisy. The convict keyman was turning the locks on each cell door; but the doors wouldn't open until the security bar on each tier was raised. As the keyman worked, the unbroken rhythm of steel striking steel—clack, clack, clack—rose and fell. It was loud when he was overhead or below, receding as he reached the end of each tier. I was dressed and shaved long before he reached my cell.

Once released, I passed through the mess hall without getting a tray and stepped into the main yard. It was jammed with men from other cell houses. In minutes the yard gate would open and the convicts would flow out to the rest of the prison. The asphalt-topped yard, formed into a rough rectangle, was a concrete canyon surrounded by the giant cell houses. Their faded paint and rusted bars blotted out the morning sun and added to the gothic bleakness. Riflemen patrolled on catwalks overhead, ready to break up fights with bullets.

I'd said goodbye to most of my friends during the preceding two days, while making the rounds to check out. Half a dozen of my closest comrades were waiting just beyond the mess hall door. Most of them I'd known since reform school, a couple had been crime partners. They wanted to shake hands and wish me luck. There was nothing else to say. I was going and they were staying.

Aaron Billings, the person I really wanted to see, failed to appear. He was black and would avoid a group of whites, just as I would avoid a group of blacks. The races had become totally polarized during recent years. Because of this I'd talked with Aaron less and less, but our friendship remained. He'd stopped me at the dentist's office yesterday (he worked there) and mentioned that he might be transferred to camp and wanted me to help him escape. There'd been no time to talk, and he was going to meet me this morning.

I excused myself from my friends, for whom life in prison would continue unchanged by my absence, and began searching through the crowd. I was more conscious of my surroundings than I had been in several years. Two thousand voices collected into a roar as powerful as wind from the sea. The roar moved up the cell house walls toward the sky, failed the ascent and echoed back into the pit. To someone seeing the yard for the first time it would remind them of a teeming anthill, each man identical with every other.

A voice cut through the uproar: "Clear the way! Dead man coming!"

In seconds there was a path ten feet wide. Moses couldn't have parted the Red Sea any more cleanly. First came a guard, whose voice was calling out. Six feet behind him came the condemned man, a tall young Negro. He was followed by a second guard. Overhead, a rifleman covered them.

It was early for a Death Row procession. This one seemed to be going toward the inside administration building. The doomed men always wore new denim and soft slippers without laces. The man's slippers were still new, indicating that he'd just arrived. He was probably going for fingerprinting and a mug photo. He was a dozen feet away and I studied his face, seeking (as everyone did) an answer to the great mystery: as if someone sentenced to die at a specific hour by cyanide gas knows more—or is more doomed. The black face gave no message. I didn't know who he was or why he'd been sentenced to die. Eighty men were waiting on the row. A handful had made headlines; the others were anonymous. Several I knew personally. Sometimes a condemned man had been on the prison main line and waved to friends when he was brought through. Not the black. His eyes remained ahead, except for an occasional glance at the sky. Another detail that told me he'd just arrived was that he was thin; after a few months everyone on Death Row got fat from the special menu. Each time I saw one of them with swollen belly I thought of hogs being fattened for the slaughter.


Excerpted from No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker. Copyright © 1973 Edward Bunker. Excerpted by permission of A
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No Beast so Fierce 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
jmatson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent first person crime novel written by an ex-convict. Usually not my "cup of tea", but after reading the very good reviews of this book, I read it and agree.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago