Thursday, April 11, 2013

Little Boy Blue by Edward Bunker

In the summer of 1943, a plain 
black Ford sedan carried three
people  through the Cahuenga 
Pass from Los Angelos into the 
San Fernando Valley.
Opening to
Little Boy Blue
by Edward Bunker
Edward Bunker's novel Little Boy Blue is not your father's Bildungsroman.

I looked it up.  Turns out, I've been misusing the term myself.  And I thought I was being so smart, showing off literary terms I learned in graduate school.   A Bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story that portrays the development of the protagonist's psychological or moral self from youth to adulthood. This applies to lots of novels, of course.  But I thought the term referred specifically to novels about artists, writers in particular.  Turns out that is a Künstlerroman.  Both terms are German.  The Germans have a word for everything.  

Kunstlerromans your parents may have known include David CopperfieldMy Brilliant Career, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The 400 Blows and The Outsiders.  (Usually, the hero of a Kunstlerroman doesn't start making art, writing, until after the novel has ended.)  I was going to argue that Edward Bunker's Little Boy Blue stands out from the other Kunstlerromans I've read because the hero is a criminal, but now that I think about it--  Ponyboy in The Outsiders spends much of the novel on the wrong side of the law and the young hero in Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows moves from petty crime to reform school. Little Boy Blue is clearly based on the author's own childhood, but The 400 Blows was based on that of its director, Francois Truffaut.  

So the hero of Edward Bunker's Little Boy Blue, Alex Hammond, who moves from an orphanage escapee to petty crime to a stint in San Quinten, isn't really all that exceptional. However, though Alex has it much worse than the other petty criminal Kunstlerroman heros I have known, he is much less sympathetic.  I can't say that I liked him, even a little.  I liked the hero of The 400 Blows and everyone likes Ponyboy.

Alex certainly has it rough from the start, growing up in an orphanage because his father cannot support him and his mother died years before the novel opens.  Shortly after his 11th birthday, Alex's father dies, too.  Alex then runs away for the first time.  The novel follows him through a series of stints in reform schools, then prisons interrupted by periods of freedom lasting from days to months.  Alex finds that he loves the freedom he gets when he runs away so much that he repeatedly does so throughout the novel.  To survive on the streets, he resorts to crime, first petty ones, then a series of increasingly bad hold-ups that eventually end in shootings.  

At every turn he makes bad decisions.  I can't fault an 11-year-old, or a 15-year-old for that matter, for making bad decisions, but it can make for a very unsympathetic hero.  Alex is not really a nice guy.  That he is a fanatic reader helps.  When behind prison bars or reform school fences, Alex finds escape in books.  He is much smarter than his incarcerated peers, but he is also forced to hide this fact in order to survive.  The reader can't help but wonder how society could have saved him.  But I also wondered why he didn't save himself.  When a character screws things up and ends up back behind behind bars three, then four times, I don't think it's unreasonable to blame him a little, even if he is only 15-years-old.  When Alex turns on the aunt and uncle who take him in and give him a basically good home after only two days with them, it's probably impossible for any reader to refrain from blaming him for his fate.  

I should say that neither Alex, nor Edward Bunker, ever ask for sympathy from the reader.  If Little Boy Blue really is the story of Edward Bunker's childhood, then I do have to admire him for being so open about his own life.  Little Boy Blue is not a novel raging against the injustices of society.  Alex was dealt a bad hand from the beginning.  He played his cards as well as he could, but he doesn't really understand the rules of the game.  While this makes for a frustrating character, it is also very true to life.  

 That Alex, Edward Bunker, managed to survive it all and become a successful author, is a testament to something.  I'm just not sure what.  


Lisa May said...

I've never heard of Kunstlerromans - so I've probably been using Bildungsroman in wrong ways as well!

Are there signs or foreshadowings in the book that Alex will find a way out, like his creator did?

James Chester said...

There is only one, in the book's final line. This is common in Kunstlerromans. The final image in The 400 Blows, I think also the last line or so in My Brilliant Career and the last line in The Outsiders as well. If the book/movie is autobiographical, then the author's life is the main way the reader knows the book's hero will find a way out. That's the only way we know Alex will find a way out in Little Boy Blue.

Judith said...

Fascinating post!!!

Would Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf fit into this category? It's been so long since I read it, but I remember when I read it, while sick in the infirmary in college, it made a huge impression on me, due to the protagonist's struggle with self and society.

Just wondering.... I must look it up.

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

James Chester said...

Thanks, Judith. I must admit that I do not know Steppenwolf, so I cannot say.

Anonymous said...

I read this author's NO Beast so Fierce-tremendous stuff