Cool Hand Luke might be familiar to you as the movie where Paul Newman eats fifty eggs for a bet, and this was certainly all I knew about it when I was asked to review the novel a little while ago. In actuality, the egg eating is only a very small part of the novel which is semi-autobiographical and describes Donn Pearce’s experiences on a Florida chain gang. I believe that this new edition has been brought out to coincide with a new play of the book which played last year in London starring Mark Warren as Luke.
The novel begins in the time after the man that would become known as Cool Hand Luke has gone from the chain gang, so the tale is told, one prisoner to another, in flashback and with a certain sense of awe in the narrative. We first hear of Luke as he is brought to carry out hard labour after repeated escape attempts and as the story unfolds we discover that he is a decorated WW2 veteran whose life after the war has been far from easy. Luke is a very sympathetic character – it seems like he’s ended up on the chain gang though a series of unfortunate events, rather than through concerted law breaking. It’s this that makes Luke’s treatment at the hands of some of the guards, mostly Boss Godfrey, a little hard to stomach and by the end of the novel it’s a bit sketchy as to who is exactly in the wrong.
According to the foreword by Antonia Quirke, who Donn Pearce himself was sent to prison, he had only a basic education but, thanks to sharing a cell with a man who read constantly, he was introduced to literature and improved his own writing enough to complete this novel. Some of the imagery in the novel is evocative and where Pearce has used vernacular and dialect it allows the reader to associate more with the characters, although it was hard to read at first.
I won’t say that this was an enjoyable book as some of the experiences of the prisoners are quite harsh and upsetting, but it is well worth reading.