Donn Pearce’s Cool Hand Luke is a hot book. A hot, sweaty book. A hot, sweaty, stinking book. When you read it, having worked vicariously on a chain gang in a Florida July, you’ll want to take four or five showers—and you’ll give up any thought of a life of crime, especially one south of the Pee Dee and east of the Atchafalaya.
Published in 1965, Cool Hand Luke is a dripping-forehead book about heat, yes. More than that, it is about time, each page marking the creaky, extra-slow passage of the days when a person is behind the fence. “Each of our days is connected to the other by all sorts of personal artifacts, attached together by glue and by dream” writes Pearce, a one-time safecracker who got caught and knew a thing or two about The System.
Mostly, though, those days are connected by routineness: dawn comes, you get up, eat breakfast in five minutes, and then spend each moment until sunset doing something mindless, picking up trash, swinging a kaiser blade, yo-yoing grass (“to you a yo-yo would be a weed cutter”) that grows faster than it can be trimmed. And all under the eyes and noses of guards and hounds, within easy reach of a shotgun burst.
What breaks the time, the narrator tells us, is the arrival of someone whose presence is felt before he even sets foot inside the fence, a hero, a poet, a rebel who is constantly testing The System. Luke has his trials ahead, from eating dozens of hard-boiled eggs to facing off with The Boss. Luke is a literary cousin of Randle McMurphy, of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and both protagonists have a similar purpose—for Luke, says our narrator, with his disciple name and Christly ways, is “coming to save us all.”
He does, too. He saves Ugly Red, the moonshiner, and Four Eyed Joe, the committer of incest, and Little Greek, the check kiter, and Alibi Moe, and Bullshit Bill, and Blackie, and Loudmouth Steve, and Cottontop, and Onion Head, and the three simpletons known as Stupid Blondie, Stupider Blondie, and Stupidest Blondie. Luke the unbeliever—says The Boss, “Ah jes don’ unnerstan’ how a feller kin stan’ thar and say he don’t b’lieve”—saves them all, his bare chest “streaked with mud and sweat and spattered drops of tar, his shovel twinkling and flashing with a paroxysm of energy.”
And of course, no one can be saved except by sacrifice.
Paul Newman famously made the role of Luke his own in Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 film, inhabiting it so completely that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in his place—and hard to read the book without seeing his bare chest there. But let’s try: picture, say, Paul Dano or Jared Leto, or fill in the blanks with a less pretty but just as winning actor, like Billy Bob Thornton 20 years ago.
Given that the American gulag is growing, with more prisoners per capita than any other “advanced” nation, a remake of the movie is a timely idea. Timely, too, is Pearce’s novel, at once goofy and deadly serious, which reads as if brand-new half a century on.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.