This recently discovered first novel by Bunker (1933–2005), who wrote his way out of prison with a series of tough-guy novels and memoirs (Education of a Felon: A Memoir, 2000, etc.), hints at both the accomplishments and the limitations of his later work.
Southern California, 1962. Ernie Stark is a two-bit hustler with dreams bigger than his bankroll. Before he can rise to the next level in the drug-dealing subculture, he has to lift himself out of the gutter. The two-fix-per-day heroin habit his friend Momo Mendoza, a Hawaiian dealer, is subsidizing is about to turn into full-blown addiction. Det. Lt. Patrick Crowley, of the Oceanview PD, is pressing him to identify Momo’s supplier or go back to prison. Momo’s current twist, Dorie Williams, is coming on to him. And Dummy Floyd, a fearsome old prison mate who doesn’t need to talk to scare people, is hovering just close enough to give him the willies. After a slack opening movement in which Stark scores some start-up capital by running a con that seems a lot more clever to him than it will to savvy readers, Bunker settles into his true story: Stark’s attempts to get Crowley off his back and purchase or muscle his way higher up in Oceanview’s heroin trade by eliminating the competition. The story recalls the contemporaneous movies Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, but Bunker’s voice is all his own, a weirdly compelling mix of stripped-down narrative, seen-it-all complacency, stilted dialogue and incongruous clichés (“The shapely dame moved with the swift sureness of a priest performing a grotesque ritual”).
Ellroy’s introduction pronounces this fledgling effort, presumably written around 1970, “a prophecy of the fine writer Mr. Bunker would become.” Strike “fine,” exactly the wrong word for Bunker’s real gifts, and that description is spot-on.