30 August 2014

Out of the past

For Little White Lies, I wrote about Sam Fuller’s not-exactly-lost but slightly misplaced novel Brainquake, out now after a couple of decades in the wilderness.

Sam Fuller’s personality is so firmly infused into his output that the temptation is to detect it in every turn of phrase. It duly spills across the landscape of Brainquake in all its guises, including the one of an old soldier in late-life, pragmatic about the effects of past wars on his country and everyone else’s. Hardboiled crime stories carry their own poignancy, something Fuller appreciated as well as anyone ever has.

Edit in 2018 to add: Little White Lies having long since destroyed its own archives, the piece is reprinted here below.


The film director who complained bitterly that too much fiction begins with boring intellectual introductions made sure to start his final novel with a man being shot through the throat and a baby sat on a time bomb.

Brainquake, Samuel Fuller’s 1992 crime story only now appearing in an English edition for the first time, is knee-deep in threat and intimidation by page two, and swarming with Fuller-esque blue-collar tradesmen by page three. This time the cops deploy robotic X-ray machines and the cameramen hang out of helicopters, but even in modern dress the Fuller style is hard to miss.

A decade earlier, Fuller made a film which had pointed in the same direction. White Dog, the troubled and troubling lament for human nature that led to Fuller’s late-life self-imposed exile in France, transplanted the brutally direct characterisations and blithe velocity of Fuller’s 1950s and 60s films into something resembling 1980s Los Angeles, in the name of social commentary. On that occasion the operation succeeded, but the patient faltered; White Dog seems to be happening in a bottle, sealed off from its outside world, the period nearly irrelevant.

By contrast Brainquake seethes with social activity, all of it informed by 1990s commerce and attitudes. The story reaches across oceans, pulling in a substantial cast from different social strata on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the law; all murdering, inveigling, or finding out the hard way that the past is not through with them.

It’s through least of all with Paul Page, simple soul and low-level courier for organised crime, a bagman with a waterfront shack reminiscent of Skip McCoy’s in Pickup On South Street, employed by a criminal outfit not unlike the one in Underworld USA. Helplessly besotted with Michelle, a married woman he once glimpsed - Paul just calls her Ivory Face” and can’t bring himself to clarify the matter further - the poor dope loses his bearings and commits the unpardonable sin of opening the bag of money he’s couriering, inadvertently damning himself with both sides of the law.

Go looking for Sam Fuller’s fingerprints on Brainquake and they materialise everywhere. Even the architecture bears the author’s stamp: the mob’s headquarters is clearly New York’s Flatiron Building - formerly the Fuller Building. Know the director’s history, and there is poignancy too. Paul suffers from brainquakes,” the near-epileptic episodes and panic attacks that render him incapable; Fuller suffered a stroke two years after writing the novel, a blow to his health which, by his own admission, took a heavy toll.

Most keenly of all, Michelle’s brashness and Paul’s meekness make them as off-balance a pair as self-confident Kelly and gushing Grant in The Naked Kiss, the film in which one lover coins a fine Fuller mantra that’s applicable in Brainquake too: Our marriage will be a paradise, because we’re both abnormal.”

But three decades had passed between The Naked Kiss and Brainquake. Search for signs that the intervening period had affected Fuller’s outlook, and they accumulate too. White Dog again looks prescient; its pessimistic ending, added to the source story by the director, feels like a rare Fuller moment to look helplessly backwards at intractable problems, rather than pragmatically forwards.

A decade’s further pondering on the ways of the world leads to Brainquakes morbid second half, set in a 1990s France dominated by the shadow of the Nazi-occupied past. World War II, never far from the heart of the matter in any Fuller context, settles over the book’s heroes and villains like a heavy fog. Brainquake returns to the old European battlegrounds to find a country dominated by the memories of patriots and the ghosts of Vichy traitors, a nation stocked with heroes and fools. The historic wound is still so raw that it draws to itself the story’s most visceral bad guy, a versatile pervert-assassin who dresses as a priest and visualises women naked while hammering nails through his victims’ faces.

Nor does the land of the free get off lightly. One prospective publisher rejected Brainquake for being too European”; a legitimate complaint, given that the novel abandons the New World at the halfway mark never to return, but surely also prompted by its unhappy view of the American Empire, a superpower nearing century’s end with its true authority now invested in murderous millionaires and corrupt financiers. The novel’s ultimate puppet master is a crooked industrialist controlling senators and stock markets alike, outmanoeuvring his government’s ineffectual war on drugs much as he would a boardroom inconvenience.

What chance in such a world for the little guy? Paul, consumed by thoughts of the last fatal brainquake, grasps for domestic bliss; and in the best noir fashion, he may have backed the wrong horse. The race was fixed against us,” says his father from beyond the grave, speaking for pragmatists on both sides of the camera. Nobody can climb into our brain and repair the damage.”

Brainquake, amongst the author’s last words on the human condition, recognises the sentiment but opts to go down swinging. With his final film-directing job two years behind him and a debilitating illness lying in wait, he drafted a grand allegory; a blunt confrontation between the nurturing instincts of familial love and the corrosive effects of corporate ambition; a call for compassion from the older generation towards the younger, and forgiveness in the opposite direction; one final excoriation of wartime cowardice and peacetime spite. Being Sam Fuller, it arrives through your window, wrapped around a brick.


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