Cool Hand Luke – Donn Pearce

Title – Cool Hand Luke

Author – Donn Pearce

Published – 1965 (this edition 2011)

Genre – Modern Fiction

I was lucky to win a copy of this book on Twitter courtesy of @CorsairPR. Corsair acquired the rights earlier in 2011 and the publication of this edition ties in with a West End production of Cool Hand Luke, starring Marc Warren.

I have to confess that this isn’t a book I would have necessarily chosen for myself, but I did enjoy it. Interestingly there is an introduction to the novel by Antonia Quirke which provides some background on the author and his own experience of time on the Hard Road (chain gang to you and I). The novel came first and then Pearce co-wrote the hugely successful screenplay. Apparently he never quite bought Paul Newman’s portrayal of Luke, and I should go back & re-watch the film soon to see how the two compare.

The story of “Cool Hand Luke” is narrated by one of his fellow prisoners, but before Luke arrives on the chain gang we get an introduction to the hardship and privation and monotony of the life on the Hard Road. The prisoners (who all have nicknames) seem to be resigned to serving their time  and they are certainly looking for a quiet life, not wanting to make their situation any worse than it already is.  This doesn’t stop them dreaming of life in the “Free World”.

Luke’s arrival (actually he’s called Lloyd until he gets his nickname) is preceded by the discovery of a discarded newspaper telling the story of his arrest  for beheading parking meters, so when he arrives at the prison he already has a reputation with his fellow inmates. He starts off by keeping himself to himself, but slowly he becomes more involved in the prison life, until the infamous scene from the film where he demonstrates his ability to eat more than anyone else in the prison. He does nothing overt to attract the attention of the guards, and in fact proves himself to be the hardest worker on the road.  He seems to have a certain smugness or knowingness about him which keeps him a little aloof from the others, but when his brother leaves him an old banjo he opens up by singing the stories of his past.

It’s not long after this that things start to go wrong for Luke – and initially it’s through no wrongdoing on his part. After that it’s a slippery slope. The authorities are determined to better him and he seems equally determined to resist giving in to them. Needless to say it all ends in tears. Luke was never going to be a man to bow down to the establishment – he just wanted to play it cool.

I enjoyed Pearce’s use of language and because of the style of narration the book felt like it would be great one to read aloud – perhaps that’s something which helped make it seem such a good choice for a film. The writing certainly reflects the style of the period. Despite the serious subject matter none of it is written in way that seems to be looking for our sympathy, just an account of how it was, which seems fitting.

Score – 4/5

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