I originally bought Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock because I had it confused with The Winslow Boy, which are bizarre novels to mix up, I know. So I went into Brighton Rock with no expectations or knowledge about the plot.
The main character—called the Boy or Pinkie—is a teenager defined by his nihilism and sociopathy, and is contrasted by several side characters: Ida who is open-hearted and decadant, and Rose, who falls in love with Pinkie. The Boy is the head of a small, violent gang. He has aspirations to be part of a bigger mob, but the head of that mob brushes him off, sending The Boy into a fury. The Boy is always filled with murderous anger and is consumed by rage if anyone humiliates or dismisses him. He has no respect for submissive people and a revulsion of any kind of intimacy.
The Boy kills or orders the killings of those who have crossed him and his gang. When the book opens, we follow a character called Hale who is afraid of being murdered. He wanders about, eventually meeting Ida. Ida is a generous, warm and joyful drunk who takes a shine to him. Later, when Hale is killed, Ida decides to track down who killed him because she felt a fleeting connection with the young man, and it grieves her that no one may care that he is gone. She spends the book tracking down the The Boy and his gang.
The Boy later meets Rose, a submissive teenager who works as a waitress. Rose has seen something that can disprove The Boy’s alibi for Hale’s killing. Eventually The Boy decides to marry Rose so that she can’t testify against him. He is continually repulsed by her and her pathetic claims of love. But his fear of being caught is greater than his nausea about having Rose close to him. Rose later has an iron hold on Pinkie as she makes it clear she is going to use her knowledge of the crime to keep him from leaving her. Her passivity covers a determination to get her way no matter what, not unlike Pinkie himself. With Ida’s indomitable will to find out the truth, Pinkie is caught in a vise between the two women—his macho cruelty insufficient to overpower them.
In general, Pinkie is almost a textbook example of a sociopath. He is charismatic, but ruthless; unable to form normal relationships or feel empathy. He feels superior to others and enraged if others don’t recognize him as the powerful killer he is. At one point, angry about others’ behavior, he thinks: “Christ! he thought, had he got to massacre a world?”
Though they are rare, there are times when Pinkie is just a scared teenager or feels lonely or disconnected. This passage particularly jumped out at me:
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. It was as if he were dead and were remembering the effect of a good confession, the words of absolution: 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.
Except for Ida’s exuberance, the characters are despairing or oppressed. I wouldn’t necessarily call the book depressing—the brilliant writing keeps things dynamic—but it’s definitely bleak. I kept forgetting the book was published in 1938, it felt so modern. The characters could be dropped down into today’s world and still ring true. There is an existentialist pressure that builds as well. Pinkie is a vivid, fascinating character, despite his nihilism. It can be hard to pull off an unlikeable protagonist who the reader still wants to spend time with, but Greene makes him riveting. The book reminded me a little of Catcher in the Rye, but more brutal.
The book is pretty much perfect from beginning to end; there is not a single moment that doesn’t add to the events, that doesn’t provide insight into the characters. Greene’s writing is beautiful, too, despite the empty world he paints.