by Chris R. Morgan
[Note: Some time last year, Greg Shepherd of Stark House Press had read “The Brutalist,” the essay I wrote on Gil Brewer in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and wanted me to write something of a sequel for a collection of novels he was publishing by the same author. “Demoiltion Man” is the result. Though you can actually read the whole thing in-book thanks to Amazon’s preview function, which is kind of cooler, I thought I’d post it here as well. As a standalone essay I think it works. I did transplant the background info from the first essay, but I thought the exposition was sufficiently conveyed enough not to rewrite, so think of it as a kind of “previously on …” edit. Everything else is entirely unique to the book’s contents.]
Why read Gil Brewer?
Because in all the trials we adults face in the day-to-day grind, few things are easier to do. One can do so without really being conscious of having done it. The typical Gil Brewer sentence does not allow time for idling. There is a force to them, and a heat. Placed in perfect sequence, the effect can be propulsive, whether like the engine revving towards a wall or the self-pleasurer convulsing towards climax. Or it can burn methodically through each layer of skin. “Doom. You recognize Doom easily,” he wrote in 1958’s The Vengeful Virgin. “It’s a feeling and a taste, and it’s black, and it’s very heavy. It comes down over your head and wraps tentacles around you, and sinks long dirty fingernails into your heart. It has a stink like burning garbage.” Gil Brewer wrote to be read, and to immerse those who read him in the sensory oppression found on bad streets and in worse houses. Get deep enough into the belly of one of his many books and any reader will understand that that is not the question they should be asking.
The seamlessness with which eyes glide over his words is of a diminished consequence compared to the force of will that is required in actively looking for them first. Why one would do so is a question that proffers different answers depending on the time a reader would conduct the search.
50 years ago his byline would have been out and about, buried in the smallest conceivable type under titles bearing words like wild, sin, teaser, virgin, bitch, Satan, and Hateville. They would spark from the spinning metal racks of train station book stands amid countless other lurid entries in a then-desired trade. In a time in which stag films and Bettie Page were too blacklisted to acquire or too light in calories to nourish, the entirely verbal sex and violence of Brewer and his ilk could abbreviate, say, the tedium between leaving the office and hugging the kids.
The pulp paperback industry of the mid-20th century was part content farm, part incubator. As an intersecting of publisher, writer, and profit it was a marvel of its time and place, descending nearly into fable with each ensuing decade. Such a system was easy money for all involved and especially helpful in facilitating a burgeoning artistic career, as it was for William S. Burroughs, Harlan Ellison, Terry Southern, and Ed Wood. For others, though, it became something of a niche from which it was very hard to escape. Orrie Hitt’s particular brand of “adult reading” had sufficient enough demand that publishers would put his name on books regardless as to whether he wrote them or not. This division was not always harmonious, as Gil Brewer’s case bears out. Though he longed for “mainstream” authorship, and tried his hand at more ambitious novels, his was a career increasingly sunk in lower depths, where imaginative capacity and market demands were always in tension and hazily established.
Brewer’s thirst for writing was seemingly inherited from his father, also named Gil Brewer, who published stories, usually airplane-themed, in such early pulp magazines as Airplane Stories, Sky Riders, and Dare-Devil Aces. Brewer also inherited his father’s thirst for alcohol. The younger Brewer dropped out of high school in upstate New York, worked almost every conceivable odd job, and finally joined the army during World War II. When he returned from Europe, his family had relocated to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he later joined them. He would remain in Florida for the rest of his life and set many of his novels and stories there. Rather than work by day and write what he wished by night, Brewer chose to write what paid. With the help of agent and former Black Mask editor Joseph T. Shaw, Brewer began a long career with Gold Medal Books, a paperback staple created by Fawcett Publications that published such luminaries of noir obscurity as Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis. In 1951, Gold Medal published Brewer’s first novel Satan is a Woman.
Brewer’s pulp output was typical of its kind. At his peak he could produce prolifically, rapidly (sometimes within days), and uniformly. Between 1951 and 1978, Brewer published 50 novels, 33 of which were in his own name. In 1960 alone he published Angel, Nude on Thin Ice, Backwoods Teaser, The Three-Way Split, and Play It Hard.
Taken in total, Brewer’s fiction forms something of a thematic chain, an endless succession of detonated men and the women who fiddle with their wiring, however clumsily or menacingly. The Brewer protagonist was less of an existential outcast or a cynical white knight and more of a man on the street with imbalances both biographical and psychological. His main publisher at his career peak, Gold Medal, was understandably fond of the average Joe figurehead, for which Brewer spun depraved yarns with aplomb. Brewer’s protagonists are almost always the weariest of world-weary deadbeats, men who are “dying in a flaming bonfire of futility, intense hate and frustration.” They are lonely, dejected, abused, jailed, and orphaned on at least two occasions. They broil with desperation and reek of booze. They do not, however, want for sex (or what passed for sex in a period fogged by euphemism), romping with attractive but not entirely trustworthy women.
Brewer covers all the noir basics: the power of bad choices and their consequences, of male lust if not of feminine wiles; the power of nothing left to lose and of the conscious pursuit of mere delusions of success. Noir characters, like all of us, strive for betterment, but few of us go to such extremes, let alone fail so resoundingly in the process. The narrative arcs that took shape out of this dynamic don’t, when all is said and done, allow for much distinction. Indeed, much of Brewer’s stories seem threaded together by unfortunate encounters a protagonist has on a given day. An encounter with a woman—whether a young trophy wife, former lover, or random harlot—gives way to an encounter with any variation of lowlife, and then repeats a few more cycles. He is, in their hands, a thing to be used and promptly discarded. Trauma is compounded upon with deception and damage. Death, as the novels progress, becomes something of a solace. Sometimes it comes, but being spared often means never being spared in one piece.
Noir is more sensory than logical, though far from a transgressive author, Brewer still managed to push its boundaries to greater extremes to serve his readers. In place of mystery Brewer offered fantasy, less of escape from the reader’s own life and more of intrusion into someone else’s. The Brewer fantasy was not the aspirational exploits of debonair antiheros and the women who want them, but a nasty and brutish spectacle of frayed nerves, dull instincts, and debauched decorum. It can be seen as a record of a manmade wilderness, the kind sectioned off by rail lines, filled by those of stations no higher than loathsome or pitiable. With the pornography of the time in its legal and creative stranglehold, Brewer and his pulp cohorts were articulating, however consciously or unconsciously, the more sinister essence that compelled its viewership. Though Brewer was never wealthy, this would help sustain him, for a time anyway.
Brewer’s career hit difficulties as it went into the 1970s. Pulp publishing’s overall market share endured crippling if not entirely fatal injuries from that decade’s revolutions in popular media. The verbal tradesmen were caught seemingly unawares by the new visual stylists and storytellers who could now equal, perhaps even exceed their abilities. Feeding off the counterculture, young, radical filmmakers—from Roman Polanski to Dennis Hopper to William Freidkin to Sam Peckinpah—used sex and violence to overwhelm the staid Hollywood behemoth. Grindhouse theaters, giallo, and the exploitation films of Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman replicated pulp’s cheap thrills, but in ways that were as much unpredictably offbeat and gorgeous as they were purely garish. And pornography, though still illegal, was becoming similarly bold and dynamic, replicating and then exploding both pulp’s erotic chic and industrious output. Out of this environment, the work to which Brewer and others had grown accustomed became increasingly less fashionable. Even as Brewer tried to answer these new circumstances with his talents, it did not prove so simple, as these three novels, written in the mid-1970s but unpublished until now, show.
Gil Brewer was not wanting in cheerleaders who recognized his talent and wanted it nurtured to its best health. This meant dialing back his rapid fire work habits and, more importantly, dialing down the sex, which had become something of a narrative crutch for him. It would appear these concerns went unheeded. Much of Brewer’s income in the 1970’s came from pseudonymous hack work and ghostwriting, but he continued to write novels in his own name that doubled down on both sex and violence. The composition dates of the rejected novels Gun the Dame Down, The Erotics, and Angry Arnold are unclear, but taken in this order they would be indicative of a decline.
Gun the Dame Down was rejected evidently for being too racy, but it is more peculiar for its service as an attempt for Brewer to write a more traditional noir mystery. All the beats are there, the oddly named detective (William Death?), the wealthy patriarchal victim, the family he has damaged, the enemies he made, the double-crossing and other plot twists that may or may not be able to be seen from a great distance, and the femme fatales, of which Brewer had something of a surplus in this case. And there was the style, written in the first person, typically unvarnished but dialing down the brute energy in favor of emulating the hard-bitten private dicks of old:
I turned and looked inside the suddenly opened door.
The someone was a she. They’re always cautious about my name, and I don’t much blame them. We Deaths were in America to welcome the Pilgrims when they landed, so it’s a bit late to think of changing the name now. Besides, my old man was devilish proud of it. He used to say he was Death to everybody, but particularly the ladies. My mother didn’t much like that.
The Erotics hews much more closely to Brewer’s oeuvre while adding some flourishes of its own. Chris Pope is your typical Brewerian hero, a deadbeat with poor impulse control, a weakness for women, a traumatic past with butchered parents and negligent foster care, and who is swept up in criminal catastrophe with minimal effort on his part. He is also a failed artist whose talent is present. “He showed remarkable aptitude, an easy way with realism that bordered on the devilish,” Brewer writes, “but very early he began to delve into the abstract and non-representational.” But that talent was thwarted by his own self-destructive impulses, reducing him to an ornament for the local rich and a plaything for their younger, cunning spouses. If the presence of “breasts” in Gun the Dame Down, Brewer goes one further. “All I’ve ever wanted in life was money,” Pope’s old flame confesses, “and a long prick, and it never necessarily had to be yours even if I told you otherwise.” His modernizing vernacular did not necessarily extend to his depiction of women. They serve several purposes here, all somehow connected to Chris Pope’s gnarled psyche whether as savior, whore, corrupted ideal, or mid-plot distraction.
Chris Pope seems charitable, however, when set up against Arnold Platt, the eponymous force of fury in Angry Arnold. Though it is by far Brewer’s clunkiest title, it is the most encapsulating of its contents. Platt is a jobless thirtysomething tyrannized by an overbearing sister, constant rushes of anxiety and depression, and (mostly) sexual frustration. He overcomes this as “The Accountant,” who has raped and murdered five young women in his Florida city, filled with “teasers” he is bent on eradicating:
He sat back, experiencing some uncontrol with his own breathing, thinking about them. Teasers. He could recognize them anywhere.
To Arnold, a teaser was not what one would exactly think. To Arnold they must be dressed richly, or at least very nicely, in tight clothes, colorful and exciting. They moved in a certain way that struck a chord in him; they had a certain flair, a look, a mode of carriage. Their hair was always long and full.
Angry Arnold anticipates the cat-and-mouse structure of the serial killer novel that Thomas Harris would make popular with Red Dragon in 1981. Like Harris, Brewer splits his narrative between the killer and the investigators. But where Harris was at turns haunting and mordant, not to mention a more elegant storyteller, Brewer holds close to his savage, feverish approach, and indeed accelerates it:
It was an agonizing moment. His erection had grown to full proportions, forking against the fabric of his underwear and trousers and the sexual sensations that consumed him were violent. All he could think was rape, forcing entry, spreading her thighs, seeing her face beneath him, the helpless, hopeless eyes, the begging eyes—with the knife in his hand.
The pale green room was gone. He was not even seated on the chair. He was floating somewhere within his own unconsciousness, a dark somewhere, of winds and rustles and beseeching cries.
“You won’t tell …”
Brutality called him, urging through a pink vertigo of lust.
Whether this was to best capture Arnold’s mindset or a natural progression of his writing, a veneer had been forcibly removed. It is almost apocalyptic. Pulp fiction had been reborn in the 1990s as kitsch art. The trashy covers and the purple prose were given ironic glances, either in mockery of the credulousness of the past or in condemnation of its repression. Angry Arnold would deny (post)modern readers that joy. Like Sade it demands to be refused or accepted as is, “for I shall not change.” Its closest kinship is with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy, his second-to-last and his most controversial. Like Arnold it is also about a serial rapist and murderer and a film for which Hitchcock too shed the self-censorious niceties of his previous work that people found so innovative.
Gil Brewer died in 1983, barely into his sixties, from complications related to alcoholism. Many if not all of his books had been out of print, their purposes having been served, and leaving Brewer with the feeling not simply of non-accomplishment but negative accomplishment. He wrote as much in 1977: “I’m 54 and I haven’t even started. Drank too much and was always in a rush to make enough $ just to get by. Now I’d like to try my hand at writing well… If I was well I might stand a chance.” He would not live to see renewed interest, however skewed, in his industry, nor would he see his novels and stories get reprinted—digitally and on paper—by at least five publishers. Which brings us back to where we started.
These novels, having been untested by contemporary readers, are coming into a landscape far more altered than the one in which they were composed. The hunger for noir not only as a genre of entertainment but as a high art—or at least an art—calls for select delicacies of “overlooked” classics given fresh perspective, and in earnest at that. What then to do with Gil Brewer, who doubtless put a great deal of work into his novels while being convinced to his dying day that his real art had gone unwritten? What is his place? Why would we be compelled by him over what else is out there? Over Woolrich or Goodis or Chandler? Over Fargo or True Detective or Twin Peaks? Or even over pornography, golden age or otherwise?
Gil Brewer was one of the great demolition men in noir fiction. Nothing unfurled in his work with greater logic than the destruction of his protagonist from chapter to chapter, as much by his own instincts as by the circumstances that put him on that track. If sex was ever more than a selling point on which Brewer had increasing reliance, it was also the purest, surest, and perhaps the most fearsome temptation to which a man of any constitutional soundness could succumb. If Red Dragon is gothic noir, then Angry Arnold is doom noir. If Behind the Green Door is porn chic, then The Erotics is porn grotesque. Gil Brewer’s class is the voyeuristic realism of American Gigolo or the Big Black song “Bad Houses.” It does not stand foremost in our minds as readily consumable entertainment or readily appreciable art. We do not go to him putting our best selves forward, with sound minds or clear consciences. Nor do we go because we can’t truly look away. If we couldn’t we’d be on the other side of the page.