The Brutalist: A Gil Brewer Retrospective
By Chris MorganAugust 4, 2013
GIL BREWER'S CAREER spanned from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. In that time, he wrote 50 novels, 33 of which were under his own name, as well as numerous short stories. The last novel published in his lifetime (under his own name) was in 1970, followed by a few additional years of ghostwriting and other hack work. He died in 1983 at the age of 60 from complications of long-term alcoholism. All signs indicate that he did not die feeling very accomplished; in fact, 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.” In addition to struggling to publish as the 1970s came around, Brewer affirmed his belief that what he had published failed to meet his (or anyone’s) standards of respectable or memorable literature. It is the kind of self-flagellating assessment common among writers, but which carries a more profound sting for writers of genres in which respectability is neither guaranteed nor even the point in the first place.
Brewer spent the majority of his career trafficking in verbal sleaze, or at least what passed for sleaze at that time. Indeed, his entire livelihood came from writing works in which lurid narratives were rendered in a punchy, unadorned prose style — works with titles like The Angry Dream, Appointment in Hell, The Vengeful Virgin, Nude on Thin Ice, The Brat, The Bitch and Backwoods Teaser. They made for reading that was pleasurable and easy to digest while entirely devoid of nutrients. But it was an easy livelihood to make. Gil Brewer wanted nothing more than to be a writer, and he came of age at a time when writing was actually very good business so long as it was of a certain kind. Destined to have an impact lasting no longer than a morning commute, cheaply produced mass market paperback books took up a great deal of space in newsstands in the mid-20th century. Such a system was easy money for all involved and especially helpful in facilitating a burgeoning artistic career, as for William S. Burroughs, Harlan Ellison, and Ed Wood. For others, though, it became something of a niche from which it was very hard to escape. Brewer thought himself in the former category — an author who would somehow jump to “serious” literature — but with each book he finished, he seemed ever cursed to live the literary life of crime, knowing full well that the likelihood of his works going out of print in his lifetime was almost certain. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his works brought back into print and his name put back into the marketplace in a far more prominent position than he was ever able to attain on his own.
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.
The “paperback original” has long been a curiosity as both an art form and an artifact. Behind the lurid cover art and cheap paper stock is a literary craft that is perhaps unappreciated by writing instructors, from Writing 100 courses to MFA programs. The commercial demands of such writing required fast hands with at least grammatical competence, if not a very inventive imagination. Examining more than one of Brewer’s works offers a glimpse of that craft. Brewer could write a full novel in as little as a few days. Gold Medal also preferred narratives surrounding average Joe types, which Brewer wrote almost exclusively. For some, these narratives are indicators of profound creative limitation, but such limitations can sometimes produce opportunity for excellence if a writer can and wants to find it. In any case, Brewer’s republished works have given us ample evidence to pore over.
It has not been easy for crime fiction to find a place in the great Canon of Literature Worth Everyone’s Time and Mental Capacity, but it doesn’t help that crime fiction has never entirely sorted out its own canon. Dashiell Hammett was adept at pointing out the most glaring flaws in his lesser competitors, while Raymond Chandler preferred not to have his work associated with perverts like James M. Cain and Mickey Spillane.
But genre fiction lives on because of its legions of readers who, by sheer force of enthusiasm, give every writer — whether exalted or forgotten — due consideration or reconsideration. Crime fiction, almost always from the pulp era, survives especially thanks to independent publishing houses. Such houses, like Hard Case Crime and Stark House, follow their own versions of the Black Lizard model, curating their own content and rendering it in a uniform aesthetic that recalls the noir of old. Such is the case with Gil Brewer, whose work came to my attention when I saw Hard Case Crime’s reprint of The Vengeful Virgin in Penn Station in 2006. Since then, publishing houses like Stark House have dug up more of Brewer’s titles, and the University Press of Florida has published a collection of his stories. If such reintroductions do not serve as a long overdue declaration of greatness, one cannot deny Brewer is finally being given a fair shake.
The task of evangelizing the work of Gil Brewer (though I doubt they’d consider it a task) has fallen predominantly on the editors at Stark House, a California-based publisher that has reintroduced James Hadley Chase, Brewer mentor Day Keene, and the more prolific (and sleazier) pulp maven Orrie Hitt. Stark has four Brewer novels available with two more in the works. As with its other authors, Stark publishes at least two novels per book, sometimes throwing in additional odds and ends. Brewer’s branch in the noir family tree grows directly from James M. Cain, right alongside Goodis and Horace McCoy. 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 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. The novels Stark House has offered so far are typical of what Brewer wrote for Gold Medal, but they are not devoid of variations — some are less slight, some more interesting.
Wild to Possess (1959) and A Taste for Sin (1961) are quintessential Brewer. Both protagonists are confirmed losers for whom breaks are nearly impossible to catch. Both have a taste for the hard stuff (gin and absinthe, respectively), and both are easily and hopelessly enthralled with at least one buxom female. In Wild to Possess, the protagonist overhears the plot of a faked kidnapping and decides to turn it into a real one — he is also, after discovering his wife and her lover dead, being hunted by his former brother-in-law for revenge, albeit misdirected. A Taste for Sin is in a somewhat darker vein. Our fallen hero is a liquor store lackey who falls for the 17-year-old wife of a bank president with the most abstractly rendered ass I’ve come across (“a round personal idea”) and a fondness for rape fantasies. 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— with the exception of people who have been on 48 Hours Mystery — few of us go to such extremes, let alone fail so resoundingly in the process. And our lives are seldom subjected to the melodramatic plot twists Brewer’s characters endure.
The Three-Way Split (1960) and Devil for O’Shaugnessy (2008) cover much the same themes, though Brewer did try to jump out of his comfort zone in the details. The Three-Way Split has elements of a nautical adventure involving sunken treasure. The posthumous Devil for O’Shaugnessy (unpublished, according to the introduction, mostly due to irresolvable editorial conflicts) goes further still. His protagonist, another loser who makes poor life choices, is roped into another scheme that’s cockamamie on its face: he poses as a rich woman’s estranged grandson to kill her and obtain inheritance. However, the novel’s tone is notably less bleak and often a bit strange. The new grandmother’s mansion contains a panty-stealing (and -wearing) servant, a leggy secretary with a discoloration on her tongue that titillates the titular character to no end, and an aggressive pet monkey named Gargantua that may or may not be possessed by the old woman’s dead husband. And after the inevitable chaos recedes, the ending itself is actually quite hopeful.
But despite these experiments with genre, the fury with which Brewer wrote his paperbacks put his artistic standards at risk. His speed of composition permitted him to publish as many as five books in one year (though his average was three to four), a pace that made it difficult to escape his repetitive tropes and resulted in a mad dash to wrap up his storyline after all the setup, sex, and various intrigues. This productivity gave him financial stability for a time but ultimately served as the bedrock of his later disappointment.
Short stories were considered a more explicitly mercenary enterprise. He published them in magazines and digests with such titles as Hunted Detective Story, The Pursuit Detective Story, Trapped Detective Story, Mr., and Manhunt. According to his wife Verlaine, Brewer managed to produce over 400 short stories, though only about a quarter of them are considered central in his noir canon. Three stories are included in Stark House’s republication of Devil for O’Shaugnessy and The Three-Way Split — most notably a humorous but dated riff on his own genre “Dig That Crazy Corpse” — but 26 of them are given a more comprehensive presentation with Redheads Die Quickly.
One will have a hard time separating the writer of the novel from the writer of the stories that cover much the same thematic ground. But whereas the books are driven by the mechanics of their plots — and sex — the stories function more on mood, from which the plot and sex emanate like heavy steam from boiling water. It’s understandable why Brewer considered the short story a means to an end — he had less space for the development he wanted. Of course, there was all the time in the world to describe each member of the cavalcade of hot women his protagonists obsess over. “She was a real beauty,” muses a character, “with a give of subtle sex that mushroomed inside you like a hell-bomb.” But there was decidedly less time to bring the protagonists to our side. The failed everyman quality is less prominent, leaving instead a series of creeps, psychos, prowlers, pushovers, the easily upset and the easily jealous. They inhabit motels, slums, and boathouses, stifled in equal measure by the Florida heat and by their brute desires. These short stories are, in the end, tense and breathless affairs, but tense and breathless in a way that comes closest to the principles of noir, if you can call the stories that. They are weird and dirty. They have the elements of thrillers — including plot twists that are sometimes predictable or even unnecessary — but Brewer’s stories linger in the reader’s mind like extreme public indecency. They read with the clarity and immediacy of a police report or the maddening verbal froth of a written confession:
It snapped inside me then. I’d held myself down as long as I could. I kept looking at him, knowing how he’d handled Nina, realizing that she knew the inside of this house as well as he did — realizing she knew him. All the dreams came back, bursting in my mind. I went to work on him. I started doing all the sweet little things to this guy that I’d planned on doing. With my bare hands, where it hurt.
That frothing over of emotion, hormones, and rage works well in a good many of the stories so long as they’re given ample room to spread and fester. Brewer is at his best when pitting a character’s self-restraint against his brute desires. The effectiveness of “Smelling Like a Rose,” for instance, comes not so much from the story’s plot — a lonely vacationer falls into the trap of an exceptionally violent serial killer — as from his base horniness acting as a kind of psychological torture:
He stepped lithely over to the gold-upholstered studio couch, grabbed a heavy tan pillow and beat it with his fist. He held it in his left hand and smashed it brutally with his right. He hurled it from him. It plopped gently, hardly with any sound, against the wall and fell to the floor.
A man’s curses roofed the morning. “I said, God damn you, Jean. How the hell much more do you expect me to take?”
The twist in “Death of a Prowler” also seems like a pleasant afterthought compared to the domestic hell in which the novel begins. A surly, irate and perpetually sweat-drenched husband lives in a lightly policed slum with his “shapely, young, dark-haired” and skimpily dressed wife, who is harassed regularly by obscene phone calls. Domestic strife also permeates a camping couple in “The Axe is Ready,” in which a husband loves the site for its natural splendor while his wife goes on “walks,” classic pulpspeak for “fucking strangers.” “I couldn’t let her know I knew,” the character seethes to himself. “If I did, she’d leave me […] And life without Julie was as good as empty death.” Taking matters into his own hands, the husband fails to maintain appearances, to be sure, but in so doing learns a valuable, albeit wholly unhealthy, lesson in relationships. Brewer executes the story (pun partially intended) in such a way that it is hopeful. It is the centerpiece of the collection.
“Bothered” stands out for how much it strays from Brewer’s standard formula. It surrounds a male and female, as is to be expected, but in this case, the male is a young boy, and the female is a vindictive neighbor. It is refreshingly sexless, depicting the anxiety of a young person under the tyranny of a neighbor who pegs him for a vandal of her property. There is a great deal of questionable perception between both of these characters, but the perceptions being as fixed as they are, events come to a head and the coming-of-age story is ably and gleefully corrupted.
The collection is not without its uneven moments, either because Brewer could not overcome the tyranny of word limits or simply because his narrative elements fail to cohere. Some stories are lackluster in all aspects, such as the straight crime narrative “Getaway Money.” Others are bleached skeletons of porn plots (“Prowler!” and “Harlot House”). Still others fail a bit more grandly. “Mow the Green Grass” is a short piece demonstrating what seems to be misfired black humor — it fails to amuse. “Cut Bait” functions in the same vein: one vacationing fisherman is harassed by another, who torments him for the sole reason of bragging that he is better at fishing. The conclusion is typically savage, but the idea seems better served by, say, Harold Pinter than by Brewer.
The title story of Redheads Die Quickly is perhaps the most egregious for its more-callous-than-usual treatment of its female character. A former bank robber shacks up with his imprisoned partner’s girlfriend, whom he treats atrociously and later drugs in hopes of locating $800,000 his partner had hidden. Fortunately, she is not the quickly dying redhead in question, though the cover is a little misleading on that point — but I digress. Certainly Brewer was well able to create sympathetic, if not altogether good, female characters. He did so in Devil and more explicitly in the story “Always Too Late,” and there are hints of it in “Mow the Green Grass,” but the story is too shallow and can’t give us much more than hints. More often than not, the scale was not balanced in women’s favor, for whatever reason.
Ultimately, parsing Brewer’s republished works suggests there is a place for him in noir’s tumultuous, barroom-style Valhalla. He certainly seems to surpass Cornell Woolrich, who was the King of obscure noir but also one of the genre’s most flawed writers. Woolrich’s writing was convoluted and sloppy, his plots not only defying logic but insulting it. He also had a true genius for the mixed and awkward metaphor (“His heart was frothing like an eggbeater.”). By contrast, Brewer’s own slapdash work habits seem vindicated. His plots were as involved as they needed to be but not over-the-top (aside from the cases, such as in Devil, in which his tongue was planted in cheek). His style was lean and hard, meeting Swift’s dictum of putting “proper words in their proper places.” And he was able to make his mixed metaphors sing a little (“The air was knife-cold.”). Yet Woolrich remains a standard-bearer for the genre as a whole, even if some people aren’t willing to grant him the status of a Cain, Chandler, or Hammett. It doesn’t hurt that Woolrich was writing noir novels ten years before Brewer that were propelled by pulp magazines and radio shows like Suspense. More crucially, I believe, Woolrich was able to transcend the limits of the genre in ways that Brewer seemed unable. Woolrich, in a word, was cruel to his characters, creating a world in which personal responsibility went as far as fate was willing to allow. He did for cruelty what David Goodis did for despair, what Jim Thompson did for evil, and what Patricia Highsmith did for total sociopathic indifference. Brewer wanted to bring noir down to earth, back into our line of sight, which is admirable, but less so when each new sight seems only slightly different from the last.
The primary dilemma for the reader is distinguishing the artistic vision from the market demand. Brewer did not lack professional cheerleaders, who wanted nothing more than for him to reach his potential. This meant encouraging him to relax the pace at which he was producing work, especially once he was at the peak of his financial security, and toning down the sexual content, in part because Hollywood wouldn’t touch his stories but also because it had become something of a narrative crutch. Taken in isolation, a femme fatale can be an intriguing character. Graphic novels like Criminal and Fatale, for instance, have been mining the concept for complexities hitherto unavailable in less politically correct times. Make a pattern of such characters, however, and soon enough one will have readers asking, perhaps aloud with hands to the sky, how many more deceptive hot women they can take. The reader is unsure if they are unique to Brewer’s imagination or if they are what got their grandfathers’ rocks off. It is not the most ideal conundrum to mull over when reading a book.
On Brewer’s artistic ambitions we only have clues rather than solid evidence. He was at heart a kind of realist though, an unflinching and grime-laden one at that, and perhaps if he had not dived so deep into the novel-on-demand market, he could have had the makings of a kind of gulf coast Erskine Caldwell. But he was not to reach that point. Brewer may not have written about born criminals, but he was seemingly born to write crime — with all the rewards and obstacles that the genre entails.
Chris R. Morgan has previously written for VICE, Bookforum, The Awl, Open Letters Monthly, and This Recording. He lives in New Jersey and publishes a zine called Biopsy.
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