on January 2, 2001
I have said it before, and shall say it again - Graham Greene was incapable of writing a bad novel! "Brighton Rock" is yet another miraculous triumph of setting, plot, characterization, thematic unity and everything that makes novels worth reading. In addition, Greene's use of Catholicism and common-sense ethics as coexistent ideologies behind the story, guiding the main characters, gives the novel considerable philosophical weight. One great thing about "Brighton Rock" is that the characters' internal struggles are not simply reducible to good v. evil or right v. wrong, but are asked to distinguish between these two systems.
"Brighton Rock" has two protagonists - Pinkie Brown is a teenage gangster, trying to prove his manhood and establish himself as a serious force in the Brighton underworld. Ida Arnold is a healthy, flirtatious, and determined woman who cannot be dissuaded from any purpose. When corrupt newspaperman Charles Hale is killed by Pinkie's gang, Ida's momentary acquaintance with Hale on a Bank Holiday leads her to pursue the truth surrounding his death. The conflict between Pinkie, who falls into a Calvinist-Catholic defeatism, and Ida, who believes in right and Hammurabian justice(an eye for an eye) shapes the rest of the novel.
Human sexuality and relationships are important facets of "Brighton Rock." Pinkie and Rose, two young Catholics raised in a run-down, predominantly 'Roman' housing project - constantly struggle with maturity, responsibility, and human physicality. While they view sex as 'mortal sin,' Ida, their pursuer, sees it as 'natural,' and celebratory of life. The complex relationship between Pinkie and the equally young and innocent Rose adds further purpose to Ida's mission.
Minor characters like the anemic Spicer, the loyal Dallow, the brusque Cubitt, and the literary lawyer Prewitt, along with Rose's 'moody' parents and his own eternally copulating parents, all complicate Pinkie's inner turmoil - and reveal that Pinkie's supposed manhood is a veil for his inherent weakness and inexperience.
Greene's wealth of literary knowledge also adds texture to the novel as a whole. References to Shakespeare, the 18th century actor and Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, Romantic-era poets like Keats and Wordsworth, Victorian literature (Dickens' "David Copperfield"), and modern magazines and motion pictures casts the novel against a history of British literature. Overall, "Brighton Rock" is typical Greene - expertly written and philosophically provocative.
I enjoy Graham Greene's books and bought some used copies from a street vendor a while ago. I took this one with me to read one day because it was the smallest and shortest one of the bunch. I sure was surprised when I quickly discovered that, although it was only 247 pages long, it certainly did pack a wallop. I think it is my favorite so far and I've read quite a few of this author's books.
Written way back in 1938, it is set in a world that probably exists only in the memories of the Brits who visited Brighton during that year. For those of you not familiar with the place, Brighton is a seaside resort frequented by working class people. There are hotels and restaurants, a racetrack and all kinds of Boardwalk amusements. It is also run by a mob which rivals any in greed and violence. As usual with Graham Greene, there is a theme of good and evil. The boy named Pinkie is bad; the girl he romances named Rose is good. Both are Catholics and the Catholic belief system looms large in this story, adding depth to the excellent characterizations.
The writing is excellent, the descriptions clear and concise. It didn't even take me long to pick up the British slang which included words I had never heard before. There are several murders in this book. And some unforgettable characters. I'll never forget big bosomed good-natured Ida who sets off to solve the murders and save poor Rose's life. There are also some great mob characters.
The title of the book has several meanings. It's not only about the place itself. There's a kind of rock candy sold there that is referred to as Brighton Rock. And one of the themes is that it tastes the same all the way through no matter how far down you eat it. Clearly this refers to the main character Pinkie, who is also referred to as "The Boy" and is rotten right down to his core.
Put all these elements together and the result is an excellent story that gripped me from the beginning and which I couldn't put down until it was finished. And even though I know that the Brighton of 1938 is no more, I sure would like to visit it.
on May 18, 1999
Brighton Rock is the first Graham Greene book I read, and after buying all his books, this is still my favourite. I'm English by birth, and know Brighton well, and I am ever impressed by the evocation of a place exactly as I remember it. I find Pinky a truly disturbing character, and his Rose one of the most sad yet courageous heroines in modern literature. Mr. Greene is so good at drawing "small part" characters, and recreates so well the world of the petty criminal, and the unpleasant, hopeless characters who inhabit it. I have always felt Graham Greene to be the master of the written English language - his books contain neither one word more, nor one word less than they need to. Definitely my favourite author, and this my favourite of his considerable body of work.
on January 27, 2006
I did not read the introduction to this book (by J.M. Coetzee) until after I had finished it. I am glad I did not: Coetzee gives away many plot details, and these spoilers may ruin your reading experience. However, there was much that I found confusing in the novel, and there were a few things that would have made me enjoy it more, had I known. First, and most important, this novel is a sequel to an earlier novel by Greene, entitled A Gun for Sale (unread by me). Also, the name of the book derives from a candy sold in Brighton - the equivalent of our salt-water taffy.
The earlier novel describes the first part of the gang war, in which Fred Hale, "a reporter, has been used by [the Colleoni gang] as an informer." That is the springboard for the action of this novel, in which Battling Kite's gang is now headed by Pinkie. Pinkie is a 17-year-old monster, who is moved by nothing except hatred. It is interesting to see Greene's view of Good and Evil through Pinkie. Greene himself was a practicing Catholic, and yet he was no saint. His literary heroes are usually at war with their own innate, human lusts. To be Good, in the Graham Greene universe, does not mean being immune to these lusts, but persevering despite them. What makes Pinkie so Evil is that he has no lusts. Women and Drink do not interest him - he is completely unnatural. He believes in Heaven, but is completely uninterested in going there.
Brighton Rock is a meditation on Good and Evil, and also Love. Eventually, a young woman falls in love with Pinkie. I do not want to ruin anything by telling how that relationship plays out. This is a gritty voyage through a depressed and ravaged England of the 1930's, filled with low-lifes and murders. In other words, it's a good read.
"Brighton Rock" has to be up there with the best novels, in all genres, of the 20th century. Even without having read a great deal of Graham Greene, I find it difficult to imagine him topping this one. Far more than a "real page turner" as one reviewer described it, this is a meditation on good and evil that blows most contemporary Catholic novelists clear out of the water.
Pinkie, a 17 year old gangster with an uncompromising dedication to the criminal way of life is a dangerous and vicious individual who, while murdering anyone in his "mob" that expresses the slightest disloyalty to him, also flirts with life and salvation through a confused young woman named Rose. Pursued by Ida, a superficial moral pedant who has only one moment of authenticity (her encounter with Hale and the discovery of his dead body) in her "pursuit of justice", the complex nature of morality is explored with a razor sharp and unforgiving probe by the author.
Admittedly, the novel leaves far more questions than it answers. How did Pinkie become the monster that he is, and what is that keeps him from being an out and out sociopath? Why is Rose hopelessly in love with him? Why does Dallow stick around to the gruesome climax? Why is the only character with a clear sense of reality an intrusive philistine who we can only loathe, in the end?
At times I really found myself rooting for the more questionable characters. "The appalling mercy of God", as Greene masterfully puts it at the end, seems to be found more in the wasted and the lost than the suspiciously virtuous. This is an absolute must read.
on January 5, 2006
This novel could be seen as a forerunner of "A Clockwork Orange". The thread of intimidation and violence works nicely at odds with the vanished seafront world of 1930s Brighton and its seedy hotels, piers, bars.
In this unlikely gangland setting Pinkie, also called "the Boy", avenges the murder of his colleague Kite, by killing newspaperman - and informant - Fred Hale. However Hale meets, on his last day of life, the easygoing Ida Arnold, whose watchword is "I believe in right and wrong."
Ida's indefatigable quest for the truth mirrors Pinkie's amoral efforts to conceal it, especially when he courts and marries innocent young waitress Rosie to prevent her damning testimony. Typically for Greene, Pinkie and Rosie's shared "Roman" (i.e., Catholic) background colours their interaction.
The unflagging narrative pace ranges from emotional, moral and sexual elements down to e.g., horse-races and ouija boards. The structure is tight and the plot inexorable. In narrative technique Greene was influenced by Henry James and Ford Madox Ford.
Greene himself said that he favoured cinematic techniques; the influence of Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock has been discerned in this book. Descriptions and action are replete with sound effects and cunning camera angles, both moving and static: "Staring out to sea she [Rosie] planned ahead . . . he [Pinkie] could see the years advancing before her eyes like the line of the tide."
But it didn't just make a great film - it's a super, disturbing read.
on January 27, 2001
Graham Greene may be the most underrated writer of the 20th Century. This book, one of his best, is also possibly the grimmest. It appears to be both an exploration of modern evil and of a struggle between unrelenting heartless selfishness versus human good, the latter rooted in vitality, love, lust, and generosity. A flaw is the many deliberately obscure passages. There is an oblique reference to Greene's own visit to a dentist to have a healthy tooth removed (apparently to awaken his senses).
I have an unfortunate tendency to absorb the atmosphere of a book while I am reading it. The effect with this book caused me to feel depressed, evil, and unclean. If you react this way, this might be a book to avoid. Nevertheless it is a great work.
on September 25, 2001
Set in the underworld of Brighton between the wars, this book seethes with menace. Pinkie, the boy gangster is stalked by the implacable Ida, the good time girl turned avenger. The plot twists and turns upon itself like a dying snake and the characters plod grimly on their tracks, helpless before their destiny. Mr Greene has brought many elements to his book. there is the ever present Catholicism, the burden of guilt, the fear of Hell's fire. Ida, the avenger, is as dogged and merciless in her own way but, feeling Right on her side, has fewer qualms than Pinkie for all his evil nature. Surely this must rank as one of Mr Greene's greatest books and that, given his range and mastery of the written word, is praise indeed.
on November 16, 2006
For readers of American literature, Graham Greene's early novel "Brighton Rock" (1938) will seem an amalgamation of Dashiell Hammett and Flannery O'Connor--Catholic noir, if there can be such a genre. The precocious 17-year-old gangster-murderer Pinkie Brown frequently reminded me of the young, homicidal orphan Francis Tarwater from O'Connor's 1960 novel "The Violent Bear It Away," although what motivates each character is as different (and as indistinguishable) as amorally constructed evil and misguidedly twisted "grace." The atmosphere, however, often recalls the urban squalor of "The Glass Key," which had appeared as book and as film earlier in the decade, as well Hammett's other books and movies, which defined (and redefined) the genre of crime noir during the Depression. (In fact, a film critic at the time, Greene wrote "Brighton Beach" with the screen in mind.)
Although it might help to know that "Brighton Rock" is a sequel of sorts, one need not have read "A Gun for Sale" to follow the plot. You'll soon figure out that Fred Hale is a journalist-turned-informer who, in the previous book, ratted out Pinkie's gang and who meets a merciless (and undescribed) end at the opening of the novel. What makes Pinkie's evil intractable is that it is pure--both selfless and irrational, it exists for its own sake and is nearly immune to virtuous influences. But Pinkie meets his match in the characters of two women: Rose, his "girlfriend," whose innocence and innate goodness throw his wickedness for a loop, and Ida, whose unflagging sense of justice motivates her to pursue Pinkie and to protect Rose.
Greene's style and structural development in this early work is serviceable yet occasionally clunky; the novel is neither as polished as his later work nor as lean as Hammett's cinematic visualizations. (In his introduction, J. M. Coetzee agrees, tactfully noting that "Brighton Rock" is "not technically perfect.") It's not Greene's best, but it's a neglected gem nonetheless and an unexpectedly powerful exploration of good and evil.
Even by the exulted standards of British literature, Pinkie Brown is one uniquely depraved villain. When he goes to court a lovestruck lass, he brings a bottle of acid to threaten her with. He kills not only to cover evidence of previous murders, but because he derives pleasure from the act. He hates with a blind fury anything that makes him feel vulnerably human.
"Heaven was a word: Hell was something he could trust."
Pinkie is not just a bad guy, he is a teen so twisted by evil that he willfully chooses damnation over salvation. He's an archetype, yes, but very compelling, a flip side to the flawed cleric of Greene's "The Power And The Glory" for whom observance of Catholic ritual nevertheless steers him along the right path. For Pinkie, Catholicism is no less universal a truth, but a concept only adhered to in the negative, at least after an encounter with razor-wielding toughs forces him to realize he can't expect himself to make that last-minute plea for divine forgiveness he had been counting on.
"Brighton Rock" starts out strongly, with the last hours of a man on the run, before introducing us to the trinity of characters that steer the plot, Pinkie; his unfortunate girlfriend Rose, who invests her evil beau with all her Catholic-honed faith; and the secular, lusty Ida who, because of a chance encounter, decides to avenge one of Pinkie's victims.
Greene writes with passion and an eye for detail that reveals greater designs. There's also a black humor in the book, as Pinkie shows himself time and again the servant of his inner bile to the virtual exclusion of common sense. Greene describes the coastal British getaway of Brighton in crunchy detail, and there's a nice verisimilitude to his dialogue that anticipates Anthony Burgess's later examination of juvenile thuggery, "A Clockwork Orange," without the futuristic component. ["Brighton Rock" is set in the 1930s, when the novel was published.]
The only weakness of the book as I see it is that it takes a while to get started. There's a good 100 pages of scene-setting, and Ida doesn't make for a compelling character when she's not moving the plot, so her sections tend to drag a bit, at least until she starts getting after Rose about what Pinkie's really about. Since Greene writes his book as a mystery, this early lack of dramatic undertow costs the narrative in terms of readability, at least for a while.
But Pinkie and Rose, as they develop, more than make up for this. There's an element of melodrama in her sad devotion to his evil cause, but it's effective. Greene makes clear in his careful, empathetic way how sad Rose's life has been before she found herself receiving the attentions of a young tough she mistakes for true love. She creates the sympathetic center of the novel, while Pinkie forms a counterbalance of true malice, a man so twisted even basic human lust is lost on him. Even Shakespeare's Richard III could charm, but Greene's development of Pinkie's character is stunning for the simple fact he delves deeper into Pinkie's psyche while avoiding the slightest pretense of sympathy.
As a mystery, "Brighton Rock" finds itself in the second half, then takes off toward a conclusion that is actually quite gripping. What makes this book great is its exploration of the human character, and of the Catholic philosophy of good and evil. "Brighton Rock" is an obvious starting point for understanding Greene's attitude toward spirituality and man, and a powerful message of faith even by a negative example.