Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer
Graham Greene’s oeuvre is filled with so many masterworks that it’s hardly worth selecting one over the others. That old question of choosing Keaton, Chaplin or Lloyd certainly applies here. The response I find most satisfying to such a quandary is that one should just pick them all. Holding his best works equal, then, I must still select a specific title to praise, and I find myself being pushed toward his gangster tale, Brighton Rock.
The book is a tough one to describe, not just because its narrative takes unusual turns, but because it fits somewhat awkwardly into Greene’s overall canon. And yet this is precisely the reason I’ve chosen it. Greene began his career in 1929 primarily writing crime thrillers that gave him a name but not much esteem as a novelist. Then, in 1938, came Brighton Rock.
One reads the first half and feels that Greene still hasn’t moved beyond the limitations of genre fiction. Pinkie, his protagonist, is a teenaged gangster bent on getting a first-class ticket to Hell. He’s responsible for the death of a young newspaperman, and he takes all possible measures to ensure that the crime is covered up. This includes taking the naïve Rose under his wing and pretending to fall in love with her, because she might know something of the killing. It’s all very entertaining, and yet up to this point, the merits of the book do not seem to extend beyond its general craft.
Then Greene takes a turn, arguably the most important of his career, and finishes the book by abandoning the gangster world in order to zero in on Pinkie, Rose and their mutual quest for damnation. The book becomes preoccupied with a plethora of ideas concerning secular and religious morality, spiritual and earthly justice, and the mysterious possibilities of mercy. Greene lays out this weighty material carefully, subtly making claims of his personal convictions while never forgetting to focus on the strange, poetic, sublime beauty of the story. For let’s not forget that though Greene was Catholic, he did not like to be labeled a Catholic writer, but rather a writer who happened to be Catholic.
Pinkie was raised on religion, but he strongly avoids it, since the compass of calculated evil guides him away from any sort of notion of grace. Greene is careful about giving information about his protagonist, yet every so often there’s a glimpse into his soul, such as when he sits in a darkened theater with Rose:
“He shut his eyes to hold in his tears, but the music went on – it was like a vision of release to an imprisoned man. He felt constriction and saw – hopelessly out of reach – a limitless freedom: no fear, no hatred, no envy. But being dead it was a memory only – he couldn’t experience contrition – the ribs of his body were like steel bands which held him down to eternal unrepentance.”
Throughout the book Pinkie seems to take pride in his actions. He sees them as a sign of power, when in fact, as this passage suggests, he’s already behind bars and only pretending that he’s sitting atop the world.
Of course, I’ve merely offered a glimpse of what the book has to offer, and yet I think the point is clear as to its significance. Its second half marks the point at which Greene’s complex ideas found their way onto the page, ideas that – expressed so well in this and in other novels – would soon cement him as one of the foremost writers of the 20th century. Previously he was a solid prose stylist and a good craftsman of somewhat -superficial crime stories, but after Brighton Rock came a string of great literature: The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, among others.
Brighton was significant for Greene’s career, for sure, but it’s also great on its own terms. And it’s worth reading just for the final page. I have yet to encounter a more shocking and stunning ending to a novel.