Graham Greene is my homeboy. I walk past him flashing gang signs.
Which in this case is a tip of the hat and a bottoms-up gesture.
He essentially has two categories of fiction: globe-hopping Cold War affairs and the domestic UK stories. He’s more famous for the exotic stuff, but I prefer The End of the Affair over anything else he’s done. Now with Brighton Rock, I see how much easier it is to paint an intense character portrait when you’re not spending so much time on the palm trees and car-bomb explosions in the background.
Pinkie Brown is a seventeen-year-old sociopath taking up the reins of a small mob in Brighton. He despises drink and all pleasures of the flesh, but his steely authoritarianism is just enough to lead a few goons. One day a whacking, as we call it, goes awry, and meek sixteen-year-old Rose learns a little too much. Pinkie takes it upon himself to make sure, whether by enamoring her or murdering her, that she tells nothing to nobody.
The Talented Mr. Ripley solidified for me why we sometimes enjoy reading the bad guy. If done right, the villain-centered novel has said villain come off as a fascinating individual surrounded by dullards and dingbats; his/her actions being the only ones worth following, we follow. But you don’t have to like the evil protagonist for this to work. You no more like Young Badman Brown here than you would Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones, but this bitch-kid’s struggle toward his own ambition is nonetheless watchable.
It follows, then, that heroine of this story is as annoying as a shirt full of mosquitoes. Still, Ida Arnold, the happy, nosy, lounge-singing tart, is a calculated foil to Pinkie in that she gets off on doing “right thing.” Also, Ida fancies herself wise in worldly matters while Rose is schooled in Christian spirituality, so those two naturally condescend to each other.
Which brings me to Brighton Rock’s tension between atheism and Catholicism– a common theme with this author. The Church flat out wins the ideological confrontation in Greene’s book, particularly the way he treats the subject of ceremony. Two unexpected horrors in the story are Pinkie’s registry-office marriage and Hale’s agnostic, lackadaisical cremation. Greene insists that even if we believe marriage to be a scrap of paper and death a big nothing that leaves behind a husk, the ceremony still matters: these events have a dignity that need to be preserved. (I’m one to ask if faith in God is required for that dignity, though.)
The Boy Ain’t Right
So Pinkie resigns to marry Rose because the law cannot compel someone to testify against a spouse. I’m sure there are ways to ensure one’s silence besides killing her or marrying her (and some married folks might even contest that one) so I’m not entirely convinced of the necessity there, so that undermines some of the story’s tension.
Still, this is a freaking fascinating book, what with its frightening protagonist and a few pitiable victims you truly worry about. Poor Rose– she’s willing to commit “mortal sin” to be with Pinkie– knowing this, Pinkie sees her damnation as his greatest achievement:
“He had a sense now that the murders… were trivial acts, a boy’s game, and he had put away childish things. Murder had only led up to this– this corruption. He was filled with awe at his own powers.”
Brighton Rock is believable in the unhappiest way. When someone is incapable of love, the one joy he can squeeze out of life is the assertion of his own will.
Read it if
1. You’ve ever liked a Graham Greene novel
2. You think it’s lame that Dexter has a moral code.