In May of last year Joseph Hirsch dropped me a note which mentioned, “I’m on the hunt right now for good literature by ex-cons. Not sure if you’ve heard of Eddie Little, but he was one of a small group of hardcore criminals who could really write.”
Not only had I heard of Eddie, but I got to meet him a few months before his death. I told Joe, hey, if you want to do something on him, just send it in. Eddie Little is about as perfect a writer to spotlight on Up and Down These Mean Streets as you can get.
And here is Joseph Hirsch, on his discovery of Eddie Little:
I have been fortunate in my short literary career to correspond with several talented writers, one of whom is John Sheppard, the author of the underground classic Small-Town Punk. Sheppard has turned me on to several writers with whom I was previously unfamiliar, like Charles Portis and Harry Crews. I have returned the favor to the extent that I can, recommending neglected authors such as Floyd Salas or Iain Levison.
Two of the books I gave John, Education of a Felon and Steel Toes, were written respectively by Edward Bunker and Eddie Little. Both men belonged to a select group of authors who excelled in both crime and in writing, unlike say, James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard, who had to rely more on imagination than experience when it came to telling their tales.
Both Bunker and Little were involved in robberies and the drug world, and both men did time, but this is where the similarities end. Bunker is (or was) emotionally a block of ice, similar in the affectless tone of his writing to someone like William Burroughs, or Bret Easton Ellison at his coldest. He can describe a fight with razorblades, a strong-arm robbery, or even the murder of a child with chilling dispassion. Eddie Little, on the other hand, was a raw nerve, more prone to mining the immediacy inherent in the present tense. His was the sentence fragment-laden prose of a man who must scream or go mad.
I remember the exhilarating and terrifying feeling that his second (and last) novel Steel Toes evoked in me the first time I read it. One passage in particular struck me as so strong that I underlined it. The scene concerns a racial conflict between the “Peckerwoods” and a gang of young black cons that has erupted in an Indiana prison:
As we roll into the gym, warmth and the smell of sweat hit me like a wall that is overlaid now by the rank odor of fear and adrenaline.
And the madness that we have worked so hard to create or that we are forced into.
Or that just appears like black magic, like we’re all voodoo dolls waiting to get stuck. Whatever causes the madness between races and religions in countries and neighborhoods.
The one thing I know is that everyone of us there is trapped by a tangible force that you can feel like the bass coming out of the hugest speakers ever made, rattling through your bones and shaking your soul, setting up its own rhythm that is going to make you dance.
If you got two left feet. If you’re on crutches. If you’re in a wheelchair. It doesn’t matter.
You’re going to dance. Like Nureyev, like Bojangles, like Gene Kelly, like Fred Astaire.
You’re going to dance, motherfucker, because your life depends on it.
There are other differences between Edward Bunker and Eddie Little. Little, as the previous quote shows, grew up in the post-MLK assassination milieu of America’s prisons, where he regrettably found that his skin was his uniform, and like it or not, his options were quickly narrowed down to becoming either a victim or a “peckerwood,” which in his argot meant a white male willing to fight and stand his ground on the inside of the rock walls, even if death were the price for his stubbornness.
In both Mr. Blue and Education of a Felon, Edward Bunker describes sticking up for a black inmate because he admired the man’s character. He also notes that such an act in the late 1960s would have been akin to a Hutu taking the side of a Tutsi. Judging a man by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin was by that time, at least in prison, something completely unthinkable.
Drugs were another generational gulf between Bunker’s era and Eddie’s. When Bunker embarked on his criminal career the “-land” suffix was still appended to the “Hollywood-” sign nestled comfortably in L.A.’s hills, and the mafia had not yet leaped with both feet into the heroin trade. To paraphrase the notorious Austrialian criminal Chopper Reid, drugs had not completely destroyed the criminal world when Bunker was an outlaw.
Heroin was in Edward Bunker’s orbit, but it was at the center of Eddie Little’s universe, and in the end dope took his life. “I’ve done time before for offenses ranging from robbery to mayhem,” Little once said. “That was before my career as a writer. This round I’m in because of a regular, aggravating character flaw of mine. Despite a book contract, a movie deal and a sweet girlfriend, I couldn’t stay off mama heroin. Even though I had been off the junk. So here I am, hooked like a laboratory monkey and kicking like a dog, trying to accept the fact that I fucked up.”
Eddie Little died in May of 2003, “of a heart attack in a Los Angeles motel room,” at the age of forty-eight, according to his obituary. And while the world at large may be indifferent to the man’s memory, I’m not and I’d like to think that some other fans of the his work are out there, wondering if there isn’t more to his story, or quite possibly even an unpublished manuscript.
Little showed exponential growth from the writing of his first novel, Another Day in Paradise, to the penning of his follow-up, Steel Toes. Had he lived, I have no doubt that he would have continued to hone his skillset further, and that he would have produced a third book several orders of magnitude better than everything that came before. The successful adaptation of Paradise into a Larry Clark film starring James Woods and Melanie Griffith also makes me think he might have had another career waiting for him in Hollywood.
Few writers possessed his experience, his ear for realistic dialogue, or the descriptive powers he marshalled when writing about the underworld. His short fiction is a must for fans of gritty, lived-in accounts of the criminal world.
In the best of several articles Little wrote for L.A. Weekly, titled How to Rob a Drug Dealer, Eddie describes spending a lazy afternoon in the barrio with a man who makes his living robbing drug dealers:
I size up homeboy as he flips the carne. He’s got fine features, green eyes — could be of Spanish or Cuban descent, even Scot or Irish as long as you throw in some Latino cut. He’s put together like a boxer. Healthy without having the bulk you get from weights. A regular matinee idol except for the ink all over his face and neck — original L.A. tribal.
Andrew’s house is very much home sweet home, with the yard full of women and kids wearing bright colors; the men taking hits of cold cervezas and wine coolers; the smell of pot hanging sweet and heavy in the air, mixing with the aroma of barbecue
A heroin addict as a youth, he’s put that behind him for now. He kicked the habit on his own, because he sees 12 steps or any kind of program as a cop-out for the weak. “Sitting in a room of sniveling motherfuckers ain’t for me.”
But there’s something out of place in this scene of contentment, and it’s not just the 9mm stuck in Andrew’s belt, nor the rottweilers circling the yard silently. I narrow it down to Andrew’s eyes. They’re beyond watchful. It’s like he’s always appraising everything around him, always waiting.
That makes sense. Even when he doesn’t have cops to worry about, there’s always the chance, at any given moment, that some burned drug dealer with no sense of humor is going to settle the score for good.
The penalty for hitting a big-time slinger of hard drugs is death — obviously — and not by lethal injection or some other relatively humane method. Nope. It’s got to be bad enough to send a message.
“Anything you care about makes you weak,” says Andrew. “So I don’t care too much — I don’t let myself. That don’t mean I don’t love my old lady and kids. But I wake up every day knowing it’s like my last. Like I’m a dead guy already, and I just got one bonus day with my family.” This guy has learned to live in the present — without any help from a Beverly Hills shrink.
Andrew is once again playing cops and robbers with his boys, going down in a hail of play gunfire, and I’m wondering how long he has until it happens for real. No more magic resurrections. No starting the game over.
I ask him what he thinks his chances are of living to 40. He points a cocked finger at me and says, “None.” He punctuates his last statement with a whispered, “Pow. Gotcha.”
The carne is delicious, the tortillas fresh, the company pleasant. The oldies keep playing, and life is great.
Both Another Day in Paradise and Steel Toes are littered with references to Rosie, a young girl who Bobby Prine loved, a girl who died of an overdose in the midst of a crime spree, a girl who no doubt had her own counterpart in real-life, as assuredly as Bobby Prine was Eddie Little’s alter-ego. Hopefully, if there is an afterlife, they have been reunited there.
He was once a fatalist and a romantic, and it was perhaps impossible that things could have ended any other way for Eddie Little. That said, I see no reason why his memory should die with him. All eulogies aside, the man was frankly too good (and too rare) a writer to be forgotten.
I’ve done what snooping I can on the internet, searching out people who might have known Little or could potentially have additional info or leads into any extra literary works he may have left behind. So far my search has not turned up many auspicious leads. In a “Fresh Air” interview with Terry Gross, Eddie Little mentioned that he was running “We Care,” visiting AIDS patients in LA and the surrounding area.
Wikipedia has been of very little help, noting that “Eddie Little was born on August 25, 1955,” and that “Little else is known about his early life.”
His obituary contains some biographical information about Little, specifically the means by which he developed an interest in the written word: “[H]is father, a schoolteacher, taught him to read by twisting his arms behind his back and squeezing tighter if he mispronounced a word. After that, Little said, he became a compulsive reader and writer.”
“He started sniffing glue at 10, ran away from home at 12, got arrested the first time at 15 and started his first novel 20 years later while he was serving yet another prison term.
“He spent most of his adult life on probation or in prison, convicted of phone fraud, robbery, assault and drug possession, among other crimes…”
And that, unfortunately, is about all I could find, aside from a passing mention of a woman who was a “longtime friend,” with whom he had a child and also operated “We Care.” I hesitate to mention her name out of respect to both her and the deceased, but if she is interested in providing any additional details about Eddie or his writing, and she happens to be reading this article, please email me at email@example.com
Eddie is cold in the ground, and his works are on the verge of being forgotten by the masses.
Don’t let it happen.
If you haven’t read Little before, go for the L.A. Weekly articles. Start here: http://www.laweekly.com/authors/eddie-little/
Then when you get finished with that, take a trip with Mel & Syd and their two adopted junky surrogate children, in Another Day in Paradise and then in Steel Toes.
If after that you’re still hungering for more, then you may have to do some heavy lifting on your own. And if you do manage to unearth some as-yet unpublished gem, then please drop me a line. I’d love to read whatever you find.