The night of November 2nd, 1998. The El Cadiz Apartments, Los Angeles. Thief-turned-writer Eddie Little is worried sick; he’s convinced he can hear a baby’s screams coming from somewhere in the Spanish revival-style court. Panicking, he dials 911. When the police turn up, they find Little in an extremely paranoid state. He refuses to believe the cops are legit; he has persuaded himself that they are “hoods dressed up as cops to rob me” and brandishes a steak knife to keep them at bay. When he finally drops the knife, the LAPD drop him. A cursory search of Little’s apartment uncovers his works. Eddie Little is placed under arrest for possession and grateful for it: “Damn straight I’m lucky they didn’t shoot me.”
The incident was a culmination of drug-fueled behavior that had started a month before during the European tour for Little’s first novel, Another Day in Paradise. As he told fellow LA Weekly columnist Johnny Angel shortly after his arrest: “My mistake was going to Amsterdam alone. I was up there reading for this huge room full of people; they had me on between a rap act and some metal band. Who they were, I couldn’t tell you. Anyway, I rocked the house, man. I felt like a fuckin’ rock star – even was called back for an encore, man. The comedown was something I never experienced before, that after-stage crash that musicians talk about – I felt like my bones were getting crushed. So I did what I did – I copped and got loaded, and my life went right down the fucking drain, the worst mess I have ever been in, bar fucking none.”
“I was not what you would call a well-adjusted child.”
For Little to define the incident as the “worst mess I have ever been in” speaks of how much he had to lose at that point. This is a boy whose teacher father taught him to read by twisting his arm every time he mispronounced a word. He started huffing glue before he was ten years old. He quit school at seventh grade, left home shortly afterwards. A robbery rap put him in Plainfield Youth Center when he was twelve years old. “Back then I was considered a juvenile delinquent, now they call it anti-social personality disorder with sociopathic tendencies. The real question is who gives a shit what difference it makes anyhow. Why I felt the way I did is a moot point – fear and rage defined me and my actions. Drugs made life bearable.”
Little was not a model inmate. Two escape attempts failed; the third paid off. He hopped a train, went on the lam north, where under the tutelage of an older thief, the boy ran riot: “Making dough hand over fist. Armed robberies, burglaries, shooting smack 24-seven, stopping only when I had pharmaceuticals to slam instead ... Live hard, die young and leave a good-looking corpse, right? Wrong, pal. Whoever the idiot was who came up with that expression didn’t see my friends’ corpses.” Little became the snarling prince of beatings both delivered and endured. A bar fight put him in Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. More prison time and a motorbike accident that left him with one leg shorter than the other further limited his straight-life employment prospects. Heroin kept him hungry, burglary charges mounted – he spent most of 1982 fighting the case and ended up with a “six-year lid, state time”.
In the late Eighties, Little quit Massachusetts for California, struggling to balance a voracious smack habit with telescammer work in various boiler rooms, where he sold bogus shares in oil companies and ten-thousand-dollar blocks of investment (totaling almost $2.5 million) for two fake movies that were supposed to star Jack Lemmon and James Woods respectively. In 1992, Little found himself busted once again, this time on federal fraud charges. His testimony from 1993 shows how far he’d fallen: “If I was able to keep my eyes open, they were crossed. I managed to take a shower approximately once a month whether I needed to or not. I would frequently go into a nod or state of unconsciousness. People would tell me to wipe the drool off my face. I had abscesses covering my entire body.”
Something had to give. Little had previously dabbled with writing “for my own amusement and to try to preserve my sanity”, but now began in earnest, camouflaging his literary endeavors as letter writing, terrified of anyone reading his work. This stuff was for his eyes only, a means by which he might structure his misbegotten life in a meaningful way. On release, Little hopped in and out of rehab, became a father, did volunteer work. His days were spent toiling as manual laborer and odd-job guy, his nights attempting to wrestle his life experience into the novel that would become Another Day in Paradise.
“I always wanted to be an artistic guy. I wanted to leave a mark as something other than a thug.”
Another Day in Paradise is the story of Bobbie Prine, fourteen-year-old speed freak and petty thief, whose near-fatal beating at the hands of a campus security guard thrusts him into the orbit of Mel, a Vietnam vet and professional burglar, who administers Bobbie’s first dose of heroin and uses him on a pharmacy job that will mark the beginning of Bobbie’s larcenous career. Bobbie is a fearful, anxious kid even without the speed. He hides it with a quick temper and a fuck-you attitude. His Puerto Rican girlfriend Rosie loves him to death; they share an abusive childhood, his violent, hers sexual. Mel and his partner in life and crime Sydney become their surrogate parents, showing them the ropes as they barrel through the country, stay in hotel rooms, gorge on lobster and champagne, and tie off as a family. It’s only when Mel tries to sell the pharmacy haul to a couple of neo-Nazis who call themselves Hitler’s Henchmen – “kinda like a bike gang that don’t require bikes” – that the good times begin to curdle. One double-cross, a bullet in Mel, and a couple of dead racists later, the gang find themselves in the care of gun-dealer and all-round religious maniac Reverend Jim, where Bobbie begins to cultivate a serious heroin habit.
Bobbie might not see it, but it is the beginning of the end. His heroin addiction curses him and those around him: Reverend Jim is assassinated; a Denver insurance score set up by the flamboyant and fierce Jewels, the “craziest Chicano faggot you’ll ever meet” spirals into a bloody series of shootings, stabbings, and a particularly nasty scalping; Mel lets the liquor ruin his professional edge and ends up dead; Sid retreats to the east coast, an emotional wreck; and Bobbie finds himself in California, living with a skeletal hitman named Billy Bones, grieving the death of Rosie and her unborn child, and slipping ever further towards an overdose: “That first hit takes all the aches and pains away, makes me feel like I might live. But one of the things about stuff is once you’re really good and hooked there is no more feeling of euphoria. If you do enough you can have your head all the way in your chest, be fuckin’ drooling on yourself and still be miserable if one shred of awareness remains. I didn’t know that this was inevitable. That my tolerance level had become toxic. Couple that with the kinda misery that inspires a good country-western song, shit, the kinda pain that invented the blues and ya got a suicide run in the making.”
Ask, and ye shall receive. A paranoid Sydney calls in the big guns – Bobbie among them – to deliver some swift justice to a gang of pimps and dealers. It ends up being one bloodbath too many for Bobbie, who deals with the carnage by overdosing. He wakes up in custody, is transferred to Marion County Jail as a John Doe adult offender. After a few months of adult prison time, he learns that a softer sentence awaits him if he confesses to being a juvenile. The book ends with Bobbie’s imminent transfer to Plainfield Youth Center and his dreams of escape.
This last minute reprieve is the first time Bobbie’s youth has worked to his advantage, and is a welcome reminder that he has been fourteen-going-on-fifteen for a majority of the novel. He has always seemed older, partly because the novel is clearly written with the benefit of hindsight. At no point does Little fully inhabit his teenaged alter-ego, instead allowing him to narrate with the benefit of painful experience and some further education (albeit that of an autodidact). The prose feels present-tense immediate, but there is a cagey quality to Little’s writing. He maintains a distance even as the events of the novel parallel his own life experience, and the story takes on a queasy instability, straddling that fine line between autobiographical fiction and memoir. The details feel authentic, but some of the characters struggle to define themselves beyond broad-stroke sketches. Little’s dialogue dances close to dialect at times, and racial stereotypes are not so much touched upon as wholly embraced. Bobbie’s criminal fraternity are players in a sociopathic vaudeville show: Mel and Sydney salt their banter with Yiddish exclamations like a Borscht Belt double act; Reverend Jim is the epitome of the unhinged and homicidal evangelist; Jewels leans into his macho-femme persona like a poisonous drag queen; and Billy Bones, the Irish grim reaper himself, is all black clothes, blarney and bloodlust.
In a lesser writer’s hands, these characters could seem insufferably thin; with Little, the extreme nature of their characterization is precisely the point. These are remembered people, seen through the eyes of an adolescent and now conjured up by an aging prison raconteur. There can be no nuance in legend. And never forget: Eddie Little was a successful con man. He knew how to spin a good yarn; he also knew when to step back from the details that might unravel it. Because this may be fiction, but it is still Little’s voice. In fact, the only character who isn’t allowed the gauzy light of memory is Bobbie. Part of Another Day in Paradise’s verisimilitude comes from Little’s apparent lack of ego or self-mythologizing. Little is not concerned with the typical redemption story presented by other ex-criminal writers; he knows it would be inauthentic to give Bobbie any massive epiphanies at this stage of life. He understands that Bobbie has no clue about his own emotions or any problem beyond his need to score. It takes him the entire novel to admit to himself that he’s an addict, and even then accepts it as a fact of life rather than something that can be treated – this is the early Seventies, after all, and rehab has yet to become commonplace.
Little even deprives the reader of a satisfying surrogate dynamic. As Mel reveals late in the story, the only reason he picked up Bobbie in the first place was his size: “First time I met ya, I saw a key with feet, not a human being. I knew with some schooling, as small as you were, you could get into places I can’t. Being this big is a disadvantage in our line of work. I turned ya onto stuff so you’d be reliable – not a paranoid, crazy speed freak. The most important thing is that you can function. As a junkie you can – shootin’ speed, it’s out of the questions. Pretty fuckin’ cold-blooded, huh?” All the good times in the world can’t cover what amounts to manipulation of a child for financial gain. Mel may have given Bobbie a career, but he’s also sharpened the boy’s death wish.
Another Day in Paradise was well-received by those critics who bothered to cast an eye over it. At the time of publication, Little was a part-time bouncer and furniture mover. He made no money from the book itself – he had signed the rights over to his daughter – and instead supplemented his meager living with a gig as columnist for LA Weekly. The “Outlaw LA” column was the brainchild of editor Howard Blume: “The idea of the column was to show the underside of Los Angeles. So much of what goes on in the city is underground, under the table. There are people who live their whole lives unlisted.” It was Little’s job to raid his mental Rolodex and come up with columns exploring the seedy side of the city, and he excelled at it. Little’s columns present a rogue’s gallery of prostitutes, burglars, murderers and cons. There’s “Andrew” (names changed to protect the guilty), the former armed robber turned scourge of LA drug dealers (“How to Rob a Drug Dealer”), Vlad and Rad, a couple of Eastern European chop shop car thieves (“Chop Shop Guys”) and Pirate, the 400-pound speed freak with breathing problems (“To the Super Max”). Little’s writing earned him Columnist of the Year from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Hollywood beckoned. He signed screenwriting deals with Paramount and the production company Alphaville, Showtime wanted him to write a cable movie, and the movie adaptation of his first novel was about to be released.
“Anyone who says crime doesn’t pay only knows guys like you.”
Another Day in Paradise is a difficult novel to adapt faithfully. The story may be authentic, but it is still picaresque, and what may read as colorful can look garish on screen. So director Larry Clark and his screenwriters Landon and Chin wisely opt to streamline the narrative and tone down or remove some of the more eccentric characterizations. Vincent Kartheiser makes for a suitably pretty and dissipated Bobbie, James Woods plays a jittery, significantly older version of Mel, and Hollywood royalty Melanie Griffith and Natasha Gregson Wagner are both oddly suited to the roles of Sid and Rosie respectively, despite the fact that this Sid clearly isn’t Jewish and this Rosie wouldn’t know Puerto Rico from Portland. In fact, outside of the appearance of Jewels (an uncredited and underused Lou Diamond Phillips), the film has largely been stripped of its non-white characters. While this does mean the story is more clearly focused on the main quartet, it inadvertently undermines the multiracial aspect of Bobbie’s criminal fraternity; in the novel, those who stick to their own race – Hitler’s Henchmen, the mob, the Talbot Village gang – are seen as little more than thugs. But Clark is not interested in race, or even the specifics of Bobbie’s trade. He is only interested in those aspects of the novel that speak personally to him: addiction and family.
Larry Clark first came to public attention with Tulsa (1971), a controversial book of black-and-white photography depicting the quotidian misery of a group of young addicts over the course of eight years. Clark himself was in his twenties at the time, already a confirmed amphetamine addict; he lived and used with his subjects, capturing them in candid moments, typically shooting against the light. This “exposing for the shadows” is an aesthetic he continued into his film career, most notably in Kids (1995) with its unflinching depictions of teenage sex and drug use. Another Day in Paradise has elements of this addled sleaze, but feels more personal than Kids. “It mirrors my early youth,” he said. “I was very comfortable with the story. I put a lot of myself in that story. I knew that life, I knew those people.” This sympathy results in a softer characterization of Bobbie in particular – his gangly naivety is pushed to the foreground, with his perpetual rage and fear excised almost completely – and Little’s clear-eyed depiction of a life spiraling out of control is jettisoned for a more traditional rites-of-passage tale. Bobbie remains a victim of childhood abuse – his younger counterpart flung into the wall by a raging Big Man who bears a vocal and physical resemblance to Mel (actually played by Michael Jeffrey Woods, James’s younger brother) – but the brief scene is only used to contextualize his relationship with Mel and foreshadow his later betrayal.
While the novel’s Mel and Sid are squarely in their thirties, Woods is clearly in his fifties (playing fortyish) and Griffith in her forties, which brings a greater desperation to their characters: these aren’t young people living fast and potentially dying young, they’re ageing thieves coming to the end of their careers and in desperate need of one last score. Griffith plays Sid as a future Rosie – a little wiser, perhaps, but still in thrall to her man – while Woods’s Mel is a combination of the actor’s specialties: paranoia and rising psychosis. The pair are less obviously professional than their novel counterparts, with Mel effectively becoming the villain of the piece. By the end of the film – after a botched home invasion and a couple of frantic murders – Mel is all the way gone, bellowing at the recently-bereaved Bobbie and plotting to put one in the back of his head. “I am clear as a motherfucker,” he says, but it takes Sid’s intervention – shoving cash into Bobbie’s hand and telling him to run – to save the day. Only after Bobbie’s escape does Mel find some peace. Sure, he stops the car for a moment to punch Sid in the face, but that appears to be the end of it. That it’s only one punch means something: he knows he was wrong.
As for Bobbie, well, it would appear he has a shot at redemption as he barrels through the cornfields on his way to God-knows-where. No prison time for this kid; Clark’s film leans into the New Hollywood aesthetic it has cultivated from the opening scene. And the film occupies a strange liminal space – cities are little more than interiors and industrial suburbs, and while the film is nominally set in the Seventies, with its soundtrack running from 1967’s “Boogaloo Down Broadway” to 1981’s “Every Grain of Sand”, its characters’ gutter existence means it could just as easily be set in the late Nineties. This ambiguity gives the film a dream-like quality, but it is also an example of Clark’s less admirable aesthetic qualities: namely, the queasy eroticism of teenagers and drug use, and the glamorization of the junkie lifestyle.
Another Day in Paradise was a difficult film for Clark. The shoot was punctuated with arguments with Gregson-Wagner and his producer-star Woods, who felt Clark had a “creepy” take on teen sexuality (quite what they expected from the director of Kids is anyone’s guess), Clark returned to heavy heroin use during editing, and the director became erratic after the film’s release, punching a producer and threatening suicide. “But we did turn out an amazing film despite all the animosity,” said Woods, and it’s difficult to disagree – Another Day in Paradise is still a solid and largely authentic adaptation of a difficult novel, even as it ignores much of Little’s story and undermines his point that you can never truly escape your past, a point that Little would further explore in the next (and final) Bobbie Prine novel, Steel Toes.
“The thing about trying to escape is that trying really doesn’t cut it.”
Steel Toes picks up the story shortly after the events of Another Day in Paradise, with Bobbie now incarcerated in Plainfield juvenile facility. The center may boast a lower security level, but survival is still Bobbie’s driving instinct. He has spent the last couple of years slowly hardening into a vicious little bastard, no longer using apart from the odd spot of solvent abuse and dram of pruno “as red and cloudy as our futures”. We meet him just as he’s about to turn eighteen and planning another escape attempt.
Plainfield may have been seen as the soft option at the end of the previous novel, but it is merely a different flavor of hell, one made all the more despicable because of its damaging effect on its young inmates. Early in the novel, we are introduced to a boy formerly named Charlie, now Candy, the victim of a hundred rapes turned “femme fatale, heartbreaker extraordinaire” who has caused “so much trouble on the yard they pulled her/him out of population so he/she wouldn’t be getting sodomized and causing fights”. Removing Candy from population only made them more vulnerable to abuse by the night watch – “A time-honored tradition of victims getting further victimized by their protectors.” – and the discovery and investigation of this “affair” result in Candy suffering a psychotic break, shrieking as they’re stretchered out of solitary. Elsewhere, fear of domination and death rules the inmates, twisted into a constant state of macho aggression and dependent on “cliques, gangs, crews, cars” which provide strength in numbers and a vital identity. As Bobbie says: “A chink in your self-image can be fatal. Anything other than total confidence allows the feeding frenzy to start and you become dinner or worse.”
The constant threat of violence is just one of the reasons why Bobbie wants to escape. Far from a model inmate, the closer he gets to eighteen, the closer he gets to transfer to an adult facility. This is exacerbated by the building racial tensions within Plainfield’s walls which explode with devastating results. Previous appearances before the prison brass have been mitigated by an empathetic doctor. This doctor is noticeably absent when the superintendent passes a final verdict: “Inmate Robert Prine to be returned to court for exclusions as a juvenile. New charges of assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder will be lodged against you. That should be good for at least another ten years. Add that to the new adult sentence on your original charges and you’ll be out before you’re forty. Have a pleasant day.”
It’s now or never. Bobbie’s third escape attempt goes off without a hitch. It isn’t a particularly dramatic escape – there are no guards or dogs in hot pursuit over the snowy wasteland that surrounds Plainfield, and there is no real sense of triumph over adversity. Bobbie and his pals Big George and Red may be euphoric about their newfound freedom, but the specter of addiction looms large. “The fact is that no matter how long you’re off the shit it’s got a call that won’t quit,” says Bobbie. “The brakes that had been put on what was at that time the driving force in my life by being locked down are gone. As much as I care about my road dogs, at this point they are only a distraction from casing that pharmacy and sending nirvana running up my arm like a thoroughbred running home.”
Little enters almost immediately as narrator and voice of reason: “I don’t have a clue that part of the human condition is the errors we make, the incredibly stupid things we do and later regret. We all have our share of them, but when one specific thing can short-circuit your brain you’re doomed. I’m under the illusion that if I think enough and learn enough I will no longer fuck up. I think everybody else has a built-in system that is like a road map on how to live life. At this point in my young life, I am still awfully naïve.”
This is a charitable way of looking at it. Bobbie is controlled by his old appetites to the extent that he loses his sanctuary on the late Reverend Jim’s farm. Ex-addict Ben (now running the place) has no use and even less respect for an unrepentant junkie, pays him off with pocket change and tells him to hit the road. Bobbie does so with former prison mate Cross-Eyed Phil and Ben’s niece (who has been forbidden to consort with white guy Phil) in tow. Bobbie scores with the first dealer he finds, telling himself he can handle it, that “no way am I gonna get strung out again”, before the trio head cross-country to New Jersey, where Sid has established herself as a white-collar criminal. There he is introduced to the incongruously-named Shelton Whittington, a British-born forger who schools Bobbie in check fraud. But when Bobbie’s fledgling relationship with Shelton’s “secretary” Susan (pronounced Sue Zann) stokes Shelton’s jealous nature and results in a set-up, Bobbie and gang head north, revisiting Billy Bones and becoming professionally entangled with Somerville fence Abe and his psychotic sidekick Ernie.
Compared to the burglaries in Another Day in Paradise, this is the big time. After a successful (and violence-free) fur hijack, Abe introduces Bobbie to Mr. Smith, who offers a series of more esoteric and lucrative jobs, including one that promises a happy-ever-after: the theft of “the largest collection of ancient Greek coins in the world”, which will bring a payday of half a million dollars. It is the opportunity of a lifetime, a retirement score, but Bobbie is swiftly learning that the thief’s challenge is not the larceny itself, but holding onto the loot. The job goes well, but the aftermath proves fatal: their buyer happens to be Aristotle Onassis, who promptly croaks shortly after the burglary. Phil (no longer cross-eyed, thanks to an optometrist friend of Sid’s) and Red leave the gang to rob banks and end up behind bars. Ernie plots to kill Bobbie the moment he turns up with the coins. Bobbie counterplots: he returns the coins through local ganglord Quinn in exchange for the release of Phil and Red. Quinn’s condition: kill Abe, Smith and Ernie. Abe’s life ends up spared, but Smith and Ernie remain top of Bobbie’s shit list when they kidnap Susan. Bloodbath follows bloodbath, climaxing in Bobbie’s attack on Ernie, which leaves the psycho lipless and Bobbie dragged off to Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Here Little teases the reader with redemption. For the first time in his short life, Bobbie uses his incarceration productively. He has been encouraged to write by his college student girlfriend Michelle, and now decides to search for self-understanding through the written word: “And somewhere around the hundredth page of jotted madness I have an epiphany of sorts. The drugs and my own self-destructive behavior have put me where I am, there is no one to blame but me ... Page 150 or so brings a righteous revelation. All I have to do is stop using, learn a trade other than theft, get a job.”
For a fleeting moment, Bobbie is allowed to consider a more hopeful end than perpetual addiction and self-annihilation. He has already been paid for his first story (to be published in Story magazine, no less), written on the fly to impress Michelle, and when he is released on his nineteenth birthday (August 25th, also Little’s birthday), he is all ready to live the clean and sober life. But the promise of redemption is short-lived: a visibly drugged Michelle welcomes Bobbie back with his works and a threesome. Bobbie’s good intentions wither in the face of temptation, the final lines of the novel detailing his “fuck it” attitude with haunting precision: “Pull the works out and throw them into the corner, the needle quivering in the wall like a dart, as the music behind my eyes goes motherfuckin’ supersonic, the base and rhythm soaring as Michelle and the blonde and me descend into a lovely shared dark madness.”
As with Another Day in Paradise, Little knows better than to pander to his reader with a redemption arc, instead taking us right up to the edge of happiness before plunging us back into the pit of addiction. A clean life is not something that can be willed into existence on the back of a flimsy epiphany; the scales do not miraculously fall from an addict’s eyes all at once. Little knows first-hand that the path to sobriety is potholed with frequent relapse, and the overall tone of Steel Toes is more mournful than Another Day in Paradise, almost as if he’s offering a further corrective to the earlier novel. As such, his interjections into the narrative are more overt and almost self-chastising: “Being very young and not overly smart, I have no concept of consequences, don’t know that I and the people I loved were statistics, cartoon characters waiting to be taken off the page.” Little appears to understand his own limits as a writer, as well as our narrow comprehension as readers without his experience, weaned on the outlaw myth and pat redemption arcs. He struggles to redress the balance using fiction as truth-telling device and, to his credit, almost succeeds. As much as a reader might want to see Bobbie enjoying Little’s triumph as novelist, columnist and in-demand screenwriter, Little was adamant that Bobbie Prine’s story ended with Steel Toes. What he didn’t anticipate was that his own story would end shortly after.
“It would be nice to say that he overcame heroin addiction to lead the good, writerly life, but that wouldn’t be authentic. It wouldn’t be true to Eddie.”
Two years after the publication of Steel Toes, Eddie Little died of apparent heart failure at the age of forty-eight in a Los Angeles motel room. His third novel – by all accounts a retelling of the Bonnie and Clyde story – remained unfinished, but promised a career no longer defined by his own history. Little once said that the toughest, scariest thing to do was commit his life to the page: “Doing an armed robbery, fist-fighting a gorilla, whatever, it don’t compare to letting other people read your stuff.” This anxiety defines his two novels. The refrain across both Another Day in Paradise and Steel Toes is “better living through chemistry” and while the phrase is presented as ironic in context, it also speaks to Bobbie’s use of heroin as self-medication against the fear that dominates his every waking moment. He feels constantly on the edge of survival, even when times are good, and cannot shake the belief that everything can be snatched away from him in an instant. Very few novels in the canon of junkie literature come close to exploring the perpetual terror of existence better than Little’s work.
After his death, friends and colleagues spoke of Little’s need to help others even as he was killing himself. Rita Fabra (one of the “Ritas” to whom Another Day in Paradise is dedicated) said, “If Eddie was on top of the world, he thought he didn’t deserve it. A sadness would come over him and I’d know, he was going back.” Both Bobbie Prine and Eddie Little suffered in their attempts to leave their addict pasts behind, both were ultimately overwhelmed by them, but Little ultimately succeeded where Bobbie failed: he provided an account of his experiences that was authentic, empathetic, and provided a stark warning to anyone looking to live the junkie life.