Sunday, March 31, 2013

Donn Pearce - Cool Hand Luke

Warning spoilers

Many readers will be familiar with the classic film Cool Hand Luke produced in 1967 and starring Paul Newman. Few will know that it is based on a novel by Donn Pearce, first published in 1965.

The book and film follow the brutalised lives of a group of convicts working on a chain gang. The film centres mostly on Paul Newman's character, but the novel is more about the day to day life of the convicts, the back breaking work in the hot sun, clearing verges, building roads and the few pleasures that they have to look forward to - boring food, a few pornographic magazines, a weekly film and a relentlessly mundane, regimented life. Pearce himself had more than a few experiences of criminal life and imprisonment and the book's descriptions carry the ring of authenticity. Pearce is writing is powerful and lyrical. Here's his narrator describing some of his fellow prisoners:

"Ugly Red, the moonshiner; Four Eyed Joe who is doing Time for screwing his daughter; Little Greek, the sponge diver and check artist from Tarpon Springs; Big Steve the heist man; Rabbit, Coon, Possum, Gator and Eagle, all characters from the tales of Uncle Remus; Sleepy, the last of the Seven Dwarfs, whose six partners all got away when the cops arrived; Onion Head, Burr Head; Stupid Blondie, Stupider Blondie and Stupidest Blondie; Chief, the Blackfoot Indian, the con man and chronic liar whose true exploits are just fantastic enough to keep everyone guessing about the others...."

The prison system brutalises and dehumanises all these characters. The prisoners invent nicknames and make ridiculous bets to keep their spirits alive. The descriptions focus on the mundane, but also the reality of life with so many men crammed into such a small space - the smells, the defecation, the masturbation that inevitably takes place. The book fleshes out the background to Cool Hand Luke's life much more. In the film it was never really obvious why he committed the crime he did. In the book his temporary madness is a product of alcohol and mental breakdown. Pearce locates Luke's mental state very much in his experiences as a soldier in the US army, where he and his comrades murdered and raped their way across Germany. One can only speculate how much Pearce puts his own WWII experiences into this part of the tale, but certainly this picture of the US army is very much a product of the 1960s.

Ultimately this, as with the film, is a story of resistance. Luke's refusal to bow down and his repeated escapes offer hope to the other prisoners. This is not because they can copy him, but hope that the system can be beaten. Their disappointment when Luke is recaptured and his apparent resignation in the face of apathy is one of the most poignant moments in the novel.

"A gloom hung over the whole Camp, a despair, a lack of the lustiness and the gaiety of former times. We know what had happened. The Free Men's revenge for the night of July the Fourth was now complete. They had captured and chained and punished the culprits. They had broken them down in order to prove to the rest of us what would be the inevitable results of defiance. Then they had taken the greatest rebel of them all and rewarded him to show us the fruits of obedience."

But Luke surprises everyone. His temporary defeat giving way to more determined resistance, albeit a resistance that cannot be allowed to continue by the authorities. Failing to break him, they destroy him.

Ultimately Luke's story passes into convict history and prisoners talk of him in hushed tones. Luke's martyrdom has changed them all. The powers that be are not all powerful, they can be beaten. The convicts continue their awful work but they do so with "heads... ringing with the melody and the hymn called Cool Hand Luke".

The 1960s produced many novels that raged with indignation and anger. There are many that are more powerful, and more politically nuanced that Cool Hand Luke. But in my opinion few can match it in giving us the sense that resistance is never futile, that we can never bow down before the system or its paid servants.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You make this sound much more interesting than the film actually. What drew you to reading it?