I almost bought a copy of this novel in Brighton, which would have been perfect, but I hated the cover. Apparently it’s a thing to have cartoony characters on the cover of this novel, which makes no sense because, in true Graham Greene fashion, the closest it comes to humor is bitterness.
There are some spoilers in this review…but this novel is nearly 80 years old and has been made into 2 different movies. At a certain point you might want to just accept you’re never going to read it.
Total pages: 247
Important note: this is connected to another Graham Greene novel, A Gun for Sale. However, I maintain it’s really not necessary to read the other one before this. But who knows, I could be missing information that would bring new meaning to my reading of Brighton Rock.
Other note: Brighton rock does not refer to a geological formation (as I believed for a really long time), but a candy stick you can buy in every. Single. Shop in Brighton. The stick reads “Brighton rock” on both ends and all the way through.
Our story follows the leader of a 1930s Brighton gang in the aftermath of a murder. Pinkie Brown is a cold, ruthless 18-year-old psychopath whose grey eyes give “an effect of heartlessness like an old man’s in which human feeling has died.” (God damn, Graham Greene.) Following the murder of his gang leader, Pinkie is in charge of those loyal enough to remain, and his first order of business is vengeance.
Pinkie’s target is Fred Hale, a man who betrayed the gang leader in some way, presumably (I can’t claim I understand how gangs work at all). Just before Fred’s murder (spoiler, but I don’t think Fred even makes it to page 30), he encounters the easy-going Ida, whose bosom is described in virtually every chapter. When Fred disappears, Ida is extremely suspicious and refuses to rest until she discovers the truth about what’s happened.
As Ida pursues Pinkie, Pinkie pursues Rose, a teenager who unknowingly holds a key piece of evidence that could implicate Pinkie in murder. Even though the idea of romance is utterly repellent to Pinkie and he sees the traditional path of marriage and children as a slow death, he convinces Rose he loves her in order to dissuade her from talking to anyone about what she knows. Is he willing to sacrifice his “bitter virginity” (whatever the fuck that means), his freedom, and even his eternal soul in order to keep Rose quiet?
Like basically every other Graham Greene novel ever written, this one is highly critical of the Catholic Church. Pinkie and Rose are both Catholic, in contrast with Ida, who isn’t religious but spiritual and has a few weird superstitions about ghosts and Ouija boards. As a child, Pinkie wanted to be a priest, and Greene draws parallels between his contempt for the rest of humanity, indifference to suffering, and disdain of sex and romantic love with the Catholic Church. Greene also prods quite a bit at the two Catholic characters’ willingness to sin despite the promise of eternal damnation, going so far as to say “a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone” (246). (Ha ha, since this isn’t an English paper, I can end this paragraph with a quote and refuse to offer any explanation whatsoever!)
For some reason I didn’t get into his the first time around I tried it, but I LOVED it this time. It’s outrageously cynical, and the only novel I can think of in which a candy tourists buy in Brighton is used as a metaphor for the inescapability of human nature.
Fair warning that you’ll have to deal with a reasonable amount of dated ‘30s slang that feels made up, esp. re: women. (Both “buer” and “polony” get thrown around A LOT and I still don’t fully understand what either means. I just kept thinking of Polonius from Hamlet and also Thelonious Monk every time someone used the word “polony.”)
The end also gets a bit melodramatic, and it’s hard not to imagine physically throwing Rose. She’s an idiot. Most frustrating is that Ida, the only likeable character, gets quite a lot of focus at the beginning of the novel, but then Pinkie receives more and more attention. I was so excited when I thought (however briefly) this was actually a female-centric Greene novel.
My favorite quote is also a good test of whether you might enjoy this one or find it too dark and cynical: “That was what happened to a man in the end: the stuffy room, the wakeful children, the Saturday night movements from the other bed. Was there no escape––anywhere––for anyone? It was worth murdering a world” (92). Chills, you guys.
5/5 Pink Panther Heads
The Spectator’s review on the back of the book says of Greene, “Entertaining he may always be; comforting, never,” which I think is the most accurate description of his novels I’ve ever read. (And at the same time seems a bit like backhanded praise and also possibly written by Yoda?) I can’t think of another writer quite like Greene; perhaps Cormac McCarthy in terms of bleakness? John Le Carré in terms of suspense and a darker take on spying (as in The Quiet American)? William Golding for shared views on human nature? He’s not quite like any other writer I can think of, which is why I love him so much.
Btw, there’s apparently a 1947 film version that scandalized the nation for being too violent, which I cannot WAIT to see.