Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bad to the Bone: Greene’s Brighton Rock

The front flap of my Penguin Classics edition of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock uses appealingly dark—and, it turns out, accurate—words like murder, menace, tawdry, apathy, and evil to describe the novel. Though saying teenage criminal Pinkie Brown “worships in the temple of evil” might sound a bit melodramatic, it’s not an unfair characterization, given Pinkie’s Roman [Catholic] background and criminal transgressions.

Pinkie, a.k.a. the Boy, is a teenage gang member in 1930s Brighton, England. Through the course of the novel, Pinkie is involved in the afore-mentioned murderous activity, a knife fight, and a not-quite-legal marriage, which he arranges so a very young waitress, Rose, can’t testify against him. Mix that with the afore-mentioned Catholic upbringing, Latin quotations, some cruel cuts at Rose, and talk of mortal sin, and you end up with a lovely mess of moral confusion.

I particularly enjoyed the contrasts that Greene creates in Brighton Rock. On one side, there’s the prideful Pinkie, who carries a boulder of a chip on his shoulder because he’s so young and easy to humiliate: he can only dream of being the older, wealthier criminal boss Colleoni. And then there’s the sybaritic Ida Arnold—she of big bosom and little religious faith—who knows the difference between right and wrong and, sure she knows the truth about a death, pesters Rose and Pinkie. Rose, by the way, has no use for Ida’s right and wrong, preferring “stronger foods—Good and Evil” and making some surprising choices.

I should note that Ida loves her alcohol and doesn’t mind a good tip on the horse races, particularly if the winnings can fund her search for the truth. Here’s Ida, whom I described as “a carpe diem kind of gal” in a margin note: “The éclair and the deep couch and the gaudy furnishings were like an aphrodisiac in her tea. She was shaken by a Bacchic and a bawdy mood.” On the next page: “She bore the same relation to passion as a peepshow.”

In the end, Pinkie gets what he deserves, a fate that fits the nihilistic worldview of a boy-man who wanted to be a priest when he was a small child but ends up a murderer as a slightly larger child. Perhaps the front flap is more right than I’d thought about Pinkie worshiping at the temple of evil: at one point he tells Rose he hasn’t changed over the years, saying, “I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.” Brighton Rock candy, a note in the back of the book explains, is sold in stick form and always says Brighton inside, no matter how you break it. (A photo)

Up next: Not sure… but likely Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds.

Image credit: “Aquarium, Brighton, England,” from user Durova on Wikipedia’s Brighton, page.

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