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Dirty Men Farting

Review of Cool Hand Luke by Donn Peace


Back in 1452, when I was approaching 13 years old, my parents finally broke into the modern world and bought their first TV, complete with VCR. I think they took this step primarily because my mother, as a musician, wanted to watch Fantasia and my father, a geographer, wanted to watch Bug Bunny cartoons.

In his wisdom, the first movie my father rented for us to watch on this newfangled device was M*A*S*H. The second movie was Cool Hand Luke. I believe a psychoanalyst would have a field day with whatever this combination says about my father’s sense of manhood. Regardless, both movies are etched in my brain and personality, which is why it’s so peculiar that I didn’t even know this book existed until some time last year.

It is a semi-autobiographical account of the the author’s time in a 1940s Florida chain gang and comes complete with all the racism, sexism, and fart jokes you could possibly desire. I mean, they eat beans pretty much three times a day, so they talk about farting a lot.

The epic of Luke, a kind Paul Bunyan antihero, is probably the least realistic side of the story, but the Rhyme-of-the-Ancient-Mariner-type framing lets us in on a secret: it doesn’t matter if Luke or his actions were real or not. He represented a freedom of spirit that allowed the chain-gangers to survive emotionally intact; it is the retelling of the story, not its veracity, that matters to these prisoners. The novel is at once such a gritty realism that you can feel the dirt in their boots, and such a tall tale that you have a hard time believing anything the narrator ever says. I have never read anything that gets this balance of realism and whimsy so wonderfully complete. It is brilliant.

The movie script was also written by Donn Pearce, and is remarkably consistent with the novel. Except for the famous “what we have here is failure to communicate” speech. Pearce said that none of the guards he ever knew would have been able to give such a speech because none of them were literate enough.

Final score: 5/5, and highly recommended. Unless you don’t like dirty men farting, then I’d stay away from it, since there are a lot of fart jokes, and everyone is filthy, both physically and mentally. Or if you want women in your novels, since there are 3 in this story, and I don’t think any of them ever say anything, except Luke’s mother, and we only hear that second-hand.

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