Graham Greene’s Brighton, the tourist spot with crowds of people who flock to the pier or along the beach every year, hides a dark side. The suburbs, with dilapidated houses, is a den of criminals linked to the city racecourse. Among them is Pinkie Brown, the leader of a gang that extorts money from bookies in exchange for protection. The boy, just eighteen, had to assume the role of a gangster after his mentor, Battling Kite, was killed by order of the powerful Colleoni. While rebuilding his shattered existence, Pinkie plans his revenge. He has no difficulty in eliminating double agent Fred Hale, who is choked to death with a stick of Brighton Rock, but the presence of a dangerous witness, the young and reserved Rose, complicates everything. Their marriage, though disagreeable to Pinkie, at this point seems to be the only viable solution to guarantee the girl’s silence. Only Ida Arnold, a peaceful and pleasant woman whom Hale met on the last day of his life, has suspicions of murder, being ready to do anything to save poor Rose from Pinkie’s clutches, and managing to have the latter jailed.
Brighton Rock (1938) is the transposition onto paper of Greene’s anxieties. The novel insinuates itself like a splinter into the reader’s soul and assails him with that degree of anguish that is the English writer’s trademark. There are no heroes or even concrete hopes: everything is gray and miserable, while the inhabitants of the city seem ghosts struggling in vain through the troubles of existence.
Only in such a scenario could the paradoxical love story between the two young protagonists take shape. Pinkie is a product of the seedy slums of the city, raised without a family, amoral, devoid of charm and full of grudges. He distrusts women and is a prisoner of a virginity of which he is ashamed, but from which he does not know how to free himself. Rose, for her part, is a humble waitress, with unsociable parents, who is ready to worship anyone who notices her. What keeps them united is the fact that they are both Catholics: they possess only a pale smattering of the teachings of the Church, but this is enough to give them an unshakable sense of superiority. Their perception of themselves is fully understood in the awareness, exclusive and denied to others, of a higher destiny that awaits them (notable, in this regard, are the continuous disparaging comparisons with the secular justice preached by Ida). Grace and damnation often appear in their conversations, and eternity is invoked with increasingly disturbing shades. This pounding sense of predestination was at the cause of some criticisms leveled at Brighton Rock such as, for example, that of Orwell, who wrote that Greene seems to share the idea, which has been around since Baudealire time, that there is something quite fascinating about eternal damnation.
In reality, if at times Greene seems to support Pinkie in his romantic conception of Catholicism as the Faith of the Byronic outcast, at other times the Luciferian eschatology of the protagonist, who firmly believes only in hell, turns out to be a precarious defence against the absurdities of the world. Certainly doubts are not lacking: indeed, the whole novel, after all, is a great existential question mark (it is known how Greene liked to quote Robert Browning’s Bishop Blougram about the attraction to the ambiguous boundary of things).
Within a vortex of mounting negativity, an abyss that invokes the abyss, Brighton Rock has on its side at least the ability to restore to the reader a sense of transcendence that pervades existence, and this is achieved without recourse to mysticisms or pyrotechnic miracles. In the end it is up to Pinkie and Rose to make the free choice of eternity that is common to every man: the one between salvation and damnation.