ISSUE 5 — August, 2006

Brighton Rock — Graham Greene

First of all, in the previous issue of “Bubba’s Book Club,” I definitely set the bar too high with that Hemingway review. In the first few installments, I only set out to offer brief recommendations of particular books I had read recently and enjoyed. However, I should know by now that everything I start out doing for fun eventually turns out getting all serious. Though I am by no means an overachiever, I do tend to get overly ambitious.

That same “trap” has led me into ever-growing ambitions in drumming, bicycling, motorcycling, reading, writing, and even posting updates on my Web site. Lately I keep wanting every one of those little “open letters” to be better than the one before, and instead of dashing off a casual report, I end up laboring over those stories as much as I would “serious writing.”

Similarly, once I got rolling on that Hemingway review, it developed into a full-blown essay on the man and his body of work. It took a long time and a lot of thought and work to try to get it right. That is why I have been reluctant to start working on another issue of “Bubba’s Book Club.”

But . . . I’m going to try to “get back to basics” here.

It would be almost as easy for me to slip into an expository essay about Graham Greene and his oeuvre as it was with Ernest Hemingway, but I’ll fast-forward past all that. I have read and appreciated many other Graham Greene books, novels and nonfiction, and I had long been curious about Brighton Rock.

Like Somerset Maugham, Greene represents a certain kind of British writer, a blend of both traditionalism and modernism in the British novel. Unlike predecessors like Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens, whose books were cloistered in Victorian Britain, and somewhere west of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, Maugham and Greene wrote as Englishmen, but as Englishmen who had been around a bit. Both served in various branches of the Foreign Service in the interwar period, in the decaying outposts of the British Empire, and they made those exotic locations, from Southeast Asia to West Africa, part of their fiction.

After I had traveled in West Africa and Mexico myself, I appreciated Greene’s non-fiction accounts like Journey Without Maps and The Lawless Roads, and the novels those same experiences inspired and informed — The Heart of the Matter, set in West Africa, and The Power and the Glory, set in Mexico.

Then there were the “cinematic” novels, sometimes written with just that intent. Similar to the way that photography changed painting forever, the rise of film had a transformative effect on literature. In painting, Edouard Manet was a catalyst in the evolution of the new way artists would translate the world through their own sensibilities, and Greene was one of the first writers to adapt to the new “cinematic” paradigm. He even described how he tried to present his story not as a series of linked photographs, or theatrical set-pieces, but as if seen through a moving camera.

Greene wrote several screen adaptations of his novels, including Our Man in Havana, a clever British comedy starring Alec Guinness and Noel Coward (the cast alone suggests its sophisticated British wit), and another, darker example, The Third Man, starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and a fine selection of British period actors, including Trevor Howard, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and Bernard Lee (later James Bond’s “M”).

The film, directed by Carol Reed, is considered one of the definitive examples of “film noir” (though that style was named by the French after a series of crime novels published with black covers, and would more properly refer to authors such as, say, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett). Released in 1949, the shadowy black-and-white texture and mood of The Third Man helped to pioneer a style of art that could portray the new Cold War reality in all its tensions, illusions, and mysteries — everything is hidden, enemies are everywhere, and nothing is as it seems. That new political complexity, and especially the growing influence of espionage and Orwellian disinformation, was aptly described by American CIA counterintelligence officer James Jesus Angleton as “a wilderness of mirrors.” (And yes, that’s where I picked up the line I used in our song, “Double Agent.”)

Brighton Rock is . . . a whole other thing. It is hard to believe the novel was published in 1938, for it is a kind of “punk opera” that might just as easily have been set among the Teddy Boys of the ’50s, the mods and rockers of the early ’60s, the punks of the late ’70s, or the soccer hooligans and “chavs” (a British subculture of cheap crime and expensive fashion) of the present day.

Greene’s story is set among the tawdry seaside attractions of 1930s Brighton, portrayed without sentimentality or mercy. Almost all of the characters are entirely unsympathetic, especially the “antihero,” Pinkie, a sociopathic teenager and small-time criminal without conscience or any redemptive qualities.

Pinkie leads a gang of equally unlikable villains whose squalid world consists of seedy rooming-houses, cynical scams and swindles, smalltime gambling at the local track, cutthroat-razor fights with rival gangs, and vials of sulfuric acid to throw in the faces of their enemies (an act which, I have just discovered by doing a little background research into what kind of acid they would have used, is called “vitriolage”). Pinkie takes up with a young waitress, Rose, who is desperate to be loved, but has little sense or imagination. Pinkie’s motives are neither romantic nor sexual — he needs Rose to keep silent about a certain detail in one of his murderous schemes, and will secure that silence at any price.

Pinkie’s unlikely nemesis is an aging, blowzy, busty barfly, Ida, who likes to have a glass of port or two, and sing music-hall ballads for her fellow tipplers in the local pubs. Ida finds herself determined to be Rose’s “protector,” and to expose Pinkie’s crime, and thus becomes a kind of slatternly version of Agatha Christie’s lady detective, Miss Marple.

The fine Penguin Classics edition of Brighton Rock includes an introduction by the South African writer, J.M. Coetzee (as I have noted before, never read those “introductions” until after you’ve read the book — they give too much away). Coetzee makes an interesting point regarding the thread of Catholicism that imbues much of Greene’s writing, and how, in Brighton Rock, Pinkie and Rose have emerged from their scarred childhoods clinging to tatters of Catholicism, and thus have some repressed sense of Good and Evil. Ida, who is sensual and easygoing, a kind of natural pagan, is driven by her sense of Right and Wrong. That is a deep distinction.

Even the opening line of the novel is irresistible: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

The Winter of Our Discontent — John Steinbeck

Once again, as with Ernest Hemingway, I have read everything ever published under John Steinbeck’s name: his classic short story collections, his epic novels, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, his travel stories, and his published letters to friends and editors, A Life in Letters.

His early “socially conscious” stories about migrant farm workers and labor disputes, and his enduring novel of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath, used art to portray the times, the issues, and the Western American sense of place with lyrical prose and generous compassion.

Steinbeck’s later acknowledged masterpiece, East of Eden, cast a wider net, and built a sprawling family epic set against a broad sweep of American history. It is rich with memorable characters, deep reflection, and a deliberate biblical scale that was both mythological and earthy.

The Winter of Our Discontent was one of Steinbeck’s last works (published in 1961—he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and died in 1968), and it is remarkably different from any of his other novels. A deceptively simple story, it was thoroughly “of its time,” and turned a sharp, judgmental eye upon the American culture and morality of the late 1950s. The tale is set in a small Long Island town, its people portrayed with humor and affection, and Steinbeck directly addresses the pressures, temptations, and moral grayness of those times — and our own.

From Main Street to Death of a Salesman to a multitude of present-day books, movies, and TV shows, those themes of modern American life remain timeless and deeply relevant. It could be said that, like Ida in Brighton Rock, the main character in The Winter of Our Discontent, Ethan Hawley, is not grappling with Good and Evil, but with Right and Wrong. So are we all.

I first read The Winter of Discontent many years ago, and loved it then, but a mention of an episode in the book by a friend inspired me to reread it. Like the old saying that you can’t step into the same river twice, you can never read the same book twice. The power and significance of this novel endure, perhaps even stronger than ever, and I believe it ought to be considered not only among Steinbeck’s major works, but an important American novel of the twentieth century.

Frank Lloyd Wright — Ada Louise Huxtable

This volume is part of a beautifully designed and published series called Penguin Lives, which pairs carefully selected writers to biographies of a wide spectrum of historical figures: Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Carol Shields on Jane Austen, Garry Wills on St. Augustine, and Louis Auchincloss on Woodrow Wilson.

Ada Louise Huxtable is a Pulitzer-Prize winning architecture critic for The Wall Street Journal, as she was for many years at The New York Times, and she has published several books on the subject. Thus she brings considerable understanding and objectivity, as well as art and skill, to evaluating not only the brilliant work of this great American artist, but also the complexities, tragedies, and sheer panache of his life. Frank Lloyd Wright’s character, his work, and his behavior in private life were sculpted on the mythic, or perhaps operatic, scale.

One of Wright’s quotations is illustrative of his character: “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”

Another quote describes his love of the good life, “I will gladly do without the necessities of life so I can afford the luxuries.”

And his impish sense of humor: “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”

And finally, one quotation comments profoundly on his work, while also defusing a much-abused saying of questionable cleverness, “less is more.” With regard to music, I have grappled with that concept, so often used as an excuse for ineptitude and laziness. In Traveling Music, I think I qualified the thought as, “Less is only more when it’s better.”

But I think I prefer the pithiness (and truthiness) of Wright’s version: “Less is only more where more is no good.”

Pike's Folly — Mike Heppner

Discovering this book was a complete accident. While shopping in a chain bookstore in Santa Monica to redeem a gift card, I had chosen an armful of interesting books, and was looking for one more to fill the total. In a back shelf, I noticed the title, Pike’s Folly, because I had recently been writing about Pikes Peak, Colorado, in Roadshow, and its “discoverer,” General Zebulon Pike (love that name). I thought perhaps Pike’s Folly was a biography, or maybe an historical novel, about the nineteenth-century soldier and explorer.

Well . . . no.

A glance at the flap copy cleared that up, but also inspired me to take a chance and buy the book.

“Nathaniel Pike — a self-proclaimed Emersonian and self-aggrandizing gazillionaire infamous for developing costly projects utterly devoid of purpose — is purchasing a parcel of federal wilderness in New Hampshire with the intention of paving it over. While his assistant uses Pike as a cash machine, an excuse for writer’s block, and a distraction from his wife’s budding exhibitionist career, the Interior Department bureaucrat brokering the land hopes to pocket Pike’s money but skirt the scandal promised him by various activists. Meanwhile, Rhode Island’s other gazillionaire enlists Pike to help shore up his faltering philanthropies, an overture that enrages his daughter but delights her boyfriend, to whom Pike is a heroic pioneer of transgressive cinema and, incredibly, a friend of his hero, Brian Wilson.”

That sounded intriguing. I made an impulsive decision to add it to the stack of books I was carrying, and in the end, I richly enjoyed the novel. Even more, I have savored its lingering “affect” since. Pike’s Folly is written in the spirit of present-day novelists like T.C. Boyle and George Saunders, employing a wicked sense of humor to describe a surreal modern landscape of eccentric characters, moral and political entropy, and an undefined, menacing sense of ultimate decay.

Pike’s Folly is clever, funny, endearing, and well written, with special praise for how skillfully Heppner takes the reader inside the mind of a character who is gradually losing her grip, discarding her sanity with her clothes as she walks naked into the streets of her Rhode Island town. It takes a Faulknerian tour-de-force of writing skill to pull that off, and he does it.

Highly recommended — and especially appreciated as a more-or-less “impulse purchase.”

Serendipity in the bookstore.