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Book Review: Samuel Fuller’s Long Lost Pulp Novel ‘Brainquake’

Book Review: Samuel Fuller's Long Lost Pulp Novel 'Brainquake'

Samuel Fuller didn’t do anything halfway, either in his life, or with his movies. His filmography reads like punch after punch of hard-hitting films — “Park Row,” “Underworld U.S.A.,” “Shock Corridor,” “The Naked Kiss,” “The Big Red One” — and it was 1982’s “White Dog” that got him in particular trouble. The controversial film about dog trained to attack black people unsurprisingly found him at odds with Paramount, so Fuller went into self-imposed exile in France, where among his many activities, he turned to novel writing. It’s something he had always done throughout his career, and even you might know his “The Dark Page” though the film version, “Scandal Street” (that was not directed by Fuller). However, “Brainquake,” written during his foray abroad, fell through the cracks. The book was released overseas, published only in French and Japanese, and rather remarkably, never saw an English language printing until now. And thank goodness it has. “Brainquake” is a top-shelf dime-store novel, and to get a true sense of what you’re in for, look no further than the opening line:

Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.

How could you not keep reading to find out what happens after that? And the good news is that there’s rarely a dull or disappointing moment with each turn of the page, and that’s pretty remarkable given that Fuller saddles himself with a lead character who is so inherently damaged. Paul Page is a bagman for the mob, and though he’s good at his job, it’s a gig that requires a code of living that puts his occupation first, and everything else a distant second second. His employers demand total commitment — no outside relationships, no curiosity about what you’re carrying, and no talking about what you do. It’s demanding, but Paul is grateful. He suffers from the titular disorder, which isn’t quite a seizure, but finds him occasionally in the crippling throws of a living nightmare, where he can’t separate reality and dreams. Whatever the condition is, it eventually killed his father, who worked as a bookie, but before he passed, he used his connections to get Paul this job, knowing he would be taken care of. What he didn’t know is that even the ramrod straight and somewhat simple (some folks tried to convince his parents to have him put in an institution) Paul can be tempted. And soon enough, he is.

Watching from afar, and never saying a word to her, Paul soon begins to fall for a woman he sees each day in Central Park, whom he calls Ivory Face. He spends months writing her poetry and sending flowers anonymously, but is otherwise unable to work up the courage to speak with her. However, when he learns that she is a target for some bad guys looking to collect on money owed by her ex, he makes his move. He offers his protection, and in his own sweet way, his love, which Ivory Face, aka Michelle Troy, accepts. It was her child referenced in the provocative opening line, in what turns out to have been an elaborate set up involving her baby carriage, to kill her ex. Now she’s a potential target, and Michelle can use all the help she can get. But as with all good paperback potboilers, nothing is quite as it seems on the surface. And with police officers, hit men, mob leaders and political figures all coming into the mix as the story races along, “Brainquake” adds interesting texture to the storytelling.

Going beyond the setup — which let’s face it, is your standard tale of a decent-but-crooked man potentially falling prey to a femme fatale — Fuller has a lot of fun with the form. This isn’t a book that wastes much time on prose. Sentences are spat out in bullet-like bursts, the dialogue gets right to the point, and there are very few moments, if any, when the characters wait for something to happen. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable, clever touches Fuller puts in “Brainquake,” comes about midway through in chapter 24, when the events over the course of approximately four hours ping pong between characters. It’s a crucial sequence that offers a helluva push into the second act, while also marking a significant decision that Paul will never be able to walk away from, with the possibility that he’ll pay for it with his life. Meanwhile, his boss and family friend has to make a hard choice about where her loyalty lies first when it comes the protagonist: with blood or with the organization? 

While one can speculate whether or not this was reply to folks who took “White Dog” to task, Fuller’s book is pretty progressive for the genre. The hard hitting police detective on the case is the relentless Zara, an African-American woman who is given a decent backstory, which includes her own father’s involvement in law enforcement. In general, the women have more agency than they typically do in this sort of material, with both Zara and Michelle constantly adjusting the pieces on the metaphorical chess board to maintain the advantage and keep their male counterparts on their toes. As for the lead character of Paul Page, an outsider even in his own skin, and it’s easy to see this as something of a metaphor of Fuller’s own exile. As the story expands, Fuller — even with the writing as sharp and quick as it is — seems to see his story through the eyes of a filmmaker, giving even the occasional late stage character the proper space to become three dimensional, rather than just exist as a nondescript sign post to keep the story moving. And it goes fast. 

“Brainquake” is evidence that even in the late stages of his career, Fuller still had breathless stories to tell. While it can get a bit too over-the-top, and strain the threads of suspension of disbelief, “Brainquake” is effortless in a way that directors who have citied Fuller as an inspiration could still learn from. Filled with powerful imagery and violence (and curiously little sex appeal), “Brainquake” is crackerjack entertaining, but also skillfully measured and constructed. Sure, the thematic stuff touching upon corruption, race and religion never quite comes together, but it’s still there as the flavor which gives “Brainquake” an extra boost of quality and personality above similar pulp fiction. [B+]

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